The Fickle Nature of Reality — How Change Happens

Allen Faulton
7 min readFeb 3, 2020

The Modern Survival Guide #105

This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And, oddly enough, I’m not the same man I was when I started this series. For that matter, I’m not the same man I was when I woke up this morning. I’m not the same person as I was yesterday. I’m not living in the same world as I was last week. Things have changed. Sometimes they did it when I wasn’t even looking! The nerve!

There’s a core survival point to keep in mind at all times (and especially in the modern world) — reality is not static. Everything changes, all the time. I change, you change, the nation changes, the culture changes, our lives change, the world changes… all the time. The more interconnected we get, the more these changes matter. Every day, every minute, every second, the world is in flux all around us.

I heard a saying once — when the ground is shifting under us, the prize goes to the best dancer.

So let’s dance, shall we? Today we’re going to talk about two things — what reality is, and how changes to our reality happen. Thank goodness that’s not too much to do in an internet essay. Let’s start with reality.

The Fickle Nature of Reality

First of all, “reality” simply means the state of things as they exist. Simple enough, right? Now for the tricky bit, because there are two kinds of reality that we deal with on a daily basis. There is the objective reality — what actually is going on; and there’s the subjective reality — what we think is going on. What’s important here is that both of these realities change in response to the same events, but they do not change together, and they may not change in the same way.

This is because subjective reality isn’t as simple as objective reality. In objective reality, if a thing happens, it happens. In subjective reality, a thing has happened only once we believe it has happened, and belief is hugely complicated. For one thing, we can often believe that things have happened which have, in fact, not. For another, what it takes for one person to believe that a thing has happened is not the same as another person. Each of us has our own subjective reality.

Let’s take an example. Objectively speaking, scientists know that the world is heating up at a rate which will prove problematic, at the very least, for human life within a few decades. Traditionally this is known as “global warming,” or “climate change” if you’re feeling cheeky. This is empirically validated and not subject to reasonable dispute from an expert opinion.¹ Subjectively speaking, somewhere between 50% and 25% of Americans do not believe in global warming. However, that number has been decreasing, year over year, for most of a decade — by most metrics the majority of Americans now believe that global warming is a thing.

What happened here? Well, through a combination of cultural shift, repeating scientific statements, and personal experience, most of us have come to the realization that the planet is warming up. It didn’t happen all at once, it won’t extend to every single person… but subjectively speaking, most of us have come to the realization that global warming is a thing and we need to do something about it.

A smaller-scale example: almost every couple has had at least one fight where not only was one side out of touch with reality, neither person was wholly referencing an objective event. These are the kinds of fights that often wreck relationships, because it quickly becomes impossible for anyone to actually talk to each other because neither are referencing the same world. Talking past the other person is much easier when you have no common point of reference.

So why is this important?

Well, to return to the examples, objectively speaking the Earth has been warming for a while. But subjectively speaking, we’re just now catching on. And objectively speaking, neither party was looking at the woman in the red dress. But subjectively speaking, jealousy is a bitch. When you’re dealing with humans, the subjective reality is the one that matters for the purposes of actually prompting action.

To put that another way: no one will voluntarily act on a thing which they do not believe. This is why I don’t go home and wave crystals over my head to cure my headache. I don’t believe in crystals! But I do believe in global warming, and that belief shifts my understanding of reality and the scope of actions I feel willing and compelled to take.

This is the fickle nature of reality: not that things are or are not, but that whether we believe that things are or are not determines our reactions to the world and our understanding of our place in it.

How Change Happens

To return to the subject of change, this understanding of belief gives us the (very basic) rubric for how people make changes. There are a lot of little minor variations that might occur, but in general the order of operations is as follows:

  1. Objective reality changes
  2. Someone notices
  3. Informed observers start saying that objective reality has changed
  4. Other people choose whether or not to believe them
  5. If enough people believe, they start to evaluate the change
  6. The believers react to the change based on their evaluation
  7. This reaction prompts a change in behavior or belief which creates a new reality

Note that this isn’t necessarily either a linear or a guaranteed process. There are several off-ramps. If no one notices the objective change, no one responds; if a tree falls in a forest and no one’s around, it does not make a sound. If the people who do notice don’t saying anything, no one responds. If a critical mass of people do not believe that objective reality has changed, the response will be inconclusive. And if the believers react based on bad information, they may react the wrong way.

For example, in recent times a large number of people have come to distrust vaccines. They reacted primarily to the higher reporting rates of autism over the past few years, evaluated the situation, and drew the conclusion that vaccines are the most likely cause. They’re wrong. Like, hideously wrong. But they followed the rubric for reaction to a perceived change, and from their point of view, the reaction makes sense. They’re just incorrect.

There’s an important corollary to this as well — if believers stop believing, whatever actions they were taking stop as well. To return to the global warming example, if the majority of the population no longer believed that global warming is occurring we would rapidly roll back most of the environmental protections and policies that emerged from that belief.

The point here is that it is a terrible mistake to assume that any person will react to objective reality. They will not. They will react to their own personal, idiosyncratic, subjective reality. That subjective reality will have a greater or lesser degree of similarity to objective reality, depending on the person, and it will determine the options that person feels are available or advisable for their potential actions.

Therefore, in order to make any substantive change in any human society, you must first change the subjective reality. This is a lesson we have to learn over and over and over again as a society; from Holocaust deniers to anti-vaxxers to blind political allegiance, people will believe some seriously stupid shit if it manages to penetrate their subjective reality.

Curating Subjective Reality

We should promote the change we want to see in the world. This isn’t a hard concept; if you want something, work for it, advocate for it, give it money, and vote for it. At the same time, we should arguably promote changes that best match with and respond to objective reality.

If the world is heating up because of carbon dioxide, it’s time to stop burning fossil fuels. If you want to prevent a Holocaust event from recurring, you have to acknowledge the Holocaust occurred. If you want to promote the ideal of justice for all, you have to acknowledge the current state of the justice system. If you want to make good business decisions, you need to acknowledge the current state of the markets, and so on and so forth.

To make good changes in the world, you have to make sure your subjective reality is in step with (or at least vaguely connected to) objective reality. That means we have to maintain some self-awareness and stay educated. It means we have to know enough to know what we don’t know. It means we have to curate our personal subjective reality.

We have to do this for ourselves. Because make no mistake, if you don’t do this there are plenty of people who are willing to do it for you, and almost none of them have your best interests in mind. Beware any man who tells you what to think — he believes himself your master.²

But it’s not a journey you have to take alone. I and many others have written extensively about this process of curating a better subjective reality (it’s a huge topic), and if you’re curious about my thoughts on this, I’ve got several articles on this subject.

Everything changes. That’s not the point. The point is that our survival, in this modern age, is increasingly dependent on how we make and react to changes. It is our responsibility to recognize changes in reality and modify our beliefs accordingly. It is our responsibility to react to changes in objective reality in a way that solves problems and bolsters our society. Failure to do this is the hallmark of the end of civilizations throughout history.

Plus, you know, it’s hard to keep friends and relationships when you can’t touch reality with a ten foot pole.

¹To the extent that I’m not even going to leave a reference here. For real, though. It’s that proven. Giraffes exist. The Chiefs won the Super Bowl. The world is warming up due to too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a result of unchecked fossil fuel use. It’s at that level.

²Except me, of course. I have only your best interests in mind. You can trust me. Honest.