Who Decides What's Real?

Who Decides What's Real?

22nd Nov 2020
Reading Time: 12 minutes
Politics, Ontology, Philosophy

Who will be the next President of the United States?

I'm writing this at a moment where that question is in some dispute. The 2020 Presidential election is over, and Joe Biden is the apparent winner. But President Trump has yet to concede the race, and is pursuing every legal avenue he and his advisors can think of to try to overturn the election results in key swing states. At the moment, it doesn't appear he will be successful in forestalling Biden's victory through legal arguments.

This means that, at noon on January 20th, 2021, reality will change: the President of the United States will be Joseph R. Biden, Jr. But how do we know that? Many Trump supporters adhere to a different reality, one in which Biden's victory is the result of a massive conspiracy to commit voter fraud. Who is right? And how can we prove who is right?

The Three Worlds

In my first post on Ontology, I introduced the Three Worlds paradigm for discussing three distinct realities: the objective, the subjective, and the intersubjective. Each of these realities is a distinct context for discussing the truth or falsity of a given proposition. How we determine what is real or true depends on which reality we're talking about.

Objective reality exists independently of conscious observers; it is the laws physics and chemistry, of fundamental forces and particles, of biology and quasars. We experience objective reality through our senses and experimentation, and our opinions about objective reality don't have any effect on it. Empiricism is the best tool we have for studying the objective; what Aristotle called Physics and we today call the hard sciences belong to this reality.

Subjective reality exists in each of our individual minds, and we discover it by living our lives and experiencing a completely unique perspective. This reality includes not only our opinions, but also our actions, emotions, and ideas. The study of the subjective reality is called Ethics, and it covers what we think, what we feel, what we do, what our values are, and what we consider the meaning of life. No empirical method or other person determines what's subjectively real for you; that's for you and you alone to discover.

Intersubjective reality is that which we determine collectively, among multiple people. It's the realm of language, of writing, of agreements and contracts and mutual understandings. It is in this context that we agree to trade our time to an employer in exchange for money, and that we can go on to exchange that money for goods and services from others. These facts can neither be determined empirically nor are they true only within one person's mind—they exist only because multiple people treat them as true. The branch of philosophy that studies how propositions become intersubjective facts is what Aristotle called Politics.

Politics and People

Every intersubjective fact is the result of a negotiation. You may privately believe that you should not be responsible for taking out the kitchen trash whenever it's full, but for the sake of household harmony you agree to do it anyway; your responsibility for that chore becomes a fact. Money, laws, national boundaries, religions, rules of the road, and everything else in our social environment works the same way. Not all of these negotiations are undertaken consciously; many evolved over time and were never consciously debated.

Most intersubjective agreements we participate in, especially on the largest scales, began before we were born. Our influence over them is usually very small. It is possible for us to reject the things that others believe. But doing so has consequences; you will encounter difficulties in dealing with others if you behave as though money and laws do not exist. It is only by adhering to social agreements, whether we personally agree with them or not, that it is possible for us to build complex societies at all. The idea that shared fictions are what separate humans from other animals and allow us to coöperate on large scales is explored in depth by Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

In your subjective reality, your opinion on what is true or not is the only one that matters. but subjective truths are only true for you. If you truly believe that Napoleon Bonaparte is destined to be the next President of the United States, it will affect your behavior, and you may have difficulty finding common ground with the people around you. On the other hand, if you could convince other people of this, you would have created an intersubjective reality—a fact—shared among those people. If everyone in your group started behaving accordingly, it would probably cause some friction with those outside the group.

But now consider an even stranger scenario—suppose you somehow managed to convince everyone that you were right about Napoleon being the next President of the United States. If everyone, everywhere, absolutely agreed that this was true, then it would be true. Laws would have to be changed to accommodate this fact, of course, but doing so would be a mere formality. Constitutional amendments allowing French nationals who've been dead for two hundred years to be President would be passed unanimously by Congress and quickly ratified by all the states. New procedures would have be developed to account for a posthumous President, but any disagreements would only be over how to best account for President Bonaparte, not about the universally acknowledged fact that he will be inaugurated on January 20th.

If this fanciful scenario is difficult to imagine, it's primarily because we are unused to dealing with facts that everyone agrees on. We expect people to disagree about things. Our experience tell us that getting to a consensus on anything is a challenge. It doesn't even surprise us when two people who like each can't agree on something trivial, like an old married couple arguing over what to do for dinner. How much less likely is it for an entire household to reach accord? What about an entire neighborhood, city, state, nation, or the world?


As the number of people in a group grows, the number of relationships between them grows even faster. Each relationship requires effort to maintain, and if reaching a group decision means that every member of the group has to agree with every other, nothing could ever get done in any but the very smallest groups.

The total number of relationships in a group of people is a type of combinatorial explosion given by the formula:

\[ \frac{n(n-1)}{2} \]

Between two people there is one relationship. Between three people, there are three. Between four people, there are six, and the numbers start escalating quickly from there:

In simple groups, every member maintains a relationship with every other.

The numbers very quickly grow to a point where it's difficult to see how every member of a group can have a meaningful relationship with one another:

People Relationships Per Person Total Relationships
2 1 1
3 2 3
4 3 6
5 4 10
10 9 45
20 19 190
50 49 1,225

This raises a question—how many people can we have a meaningful relationship with? In 1992, the British anthropologist proposed that the number of meaningful relationships a person can have is limited by the complexity of our neocortex, and probably lies somewhere between 100 and 250, with 150 being a comfortable estimate. This concept has come to be known as Dunbar's Number.

What's most interesting about Dunbar's number is that it seems to correspond roughly to the typical size of pre-agricultural human communities. This makes intuitive sense; once a group grew beyond the size where each member could have a relationship with every other, it would be better to divide into smaller groups, and to summarize our relationship to people outside our own group using group identities.

Within a group that's small enough for every member to relate to each other, it would be possible to co-construct a single intersubjective reality—a shared culture, facts, and truths—using only our brains. However, since the Agricultural Revolution, humans have been living in communities noticeably larger than Dunbar's Number:

People Relationships Example
100 4,950 U.S. Senate
150 11,175 Dunbar's Number (mean)
250 31,125 Dunbar's Number (high)
435 93,395 U.S. House of Representatives
81,025 3,282,484,800 City of Santa Fe, NM (2010)
547,637 149,952,868,066 State of Wyoming (2010)
710,767 252,594,508,761 Avg. District (2010)
8,175,133 33,416,395,696,278 City of New York (2010)
37,253,956 693,928,600,197,990 State of California (2010)
308,745,538 47,661,903,463,081,952 United States (2010)
6,923,000,000 23,963,964,496,538,501,120 World (2010)

If human communities reach a natural limit somewhere around 30,000 or so relationships, our world population with its ~24 quintillion relationships is around 15 orders of magnitude larger than our brains can handle. This has required us to develop some shortcuts.

One development that we're all familiar with is the idea of hierarchies. By choosing one person to specialize in maintaining relationships, it reduces the burden on every other member of the group to maintain them:

In a hierarchy, relationship specialists reduce the burden on others to maintain relationships.

Since the Apportionment Act of 1911, the U.S. House of Representatives has had a fixed size of 435 members. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average population of congressional districts apportioned as a result of the 1910 Census was 210,328. Since the number of Representatives is fixed, the number of constituents each one represents has grown; the average district apportionment after the 2010 Census was 710,767.

Every citizen in a district only has one Representative—one relationship—to keep track of. But the Representative has 710,766 constituents—far more relationships than even the largest neocortex could manage. Even if a Representative cut off their friends, family, constituents, and donors, they're probably incapable of maintaining 434 meaningful relationships with every other member of the House.

Designing Reality

The only way we can get around the inconvenient limits imposed by our neocortices is through ideas. An idea can be shared by any number of people; an idea is an abstraction that does not need to expend any effort to maintain its end of the relationship.

Intersubjective facts allow any number of people to coöperate.

Obviously, all the actual work of maintaining any idea is done by people; the idea itself is just shared information. But that doesn't make it any less real, because people do make real choices based on their shared beliefs that have real consequences. Just as our subjective reality is created by our neurons and synapses, intersubjective realities are created by interactions between people, who create and share ideas with each other.

Most ideas arise naturally over time. One person has an idea and shares it with others, who then accept or reject it; an idea that gains great popularity may continue to grow in influence indefinitely, or may be superseded and eventually replaced by a contradictory idea. Some ideas, like contracts, marriages, or political constitutions, are purposely created after explicit negotiations.

Ideas that prove useful to the group that creates them, helping to promote the common good, are more likely to be kept and improved on; ideas that prove disastrous are more likely to be discarded. Ideas which are consistent with other accepted ideas are also more likely to stick around; consistent ideas reinforce each other and are harder to dislodge. A collection of tightly integrated ideas forms a resilient worldview—an ideology—that can be very resistant to change.

Political legitimacy is the power people have within a group to create intersubjective facts for that group. In a totalitarian dictatorship, the power to decide what's true for everyone is claimed by a single person. In other systems, legitimacy may be divided among different domains, overseen by specialists such as clerics, generals, and aristocrats. In a democracy, legitimacy rests with whomever is permitted to vote.

Legitimacy is different from authority. Authority is the de facto control over a group of people, whether they want it or not. A military junta or foreign conqueror can impose their will on a nation without their consent, but this doesn't give it legitimacy in the minds of its subjects. In every form of government, even the most absolutist, political legitimacy depends on the support of members of that society—the "consent of the governed" in the Declaration of Independence's memorable phrasing.

The perception of legitimacy is what ultimately gives a government its power, because the people it governs will make decisions that either support or undermine it every day. A government which is in authority but lacks legitimacy among its populace will sooner or later fail. A faction with great legitimacy but no authority will soon be in power. A group with neither legitimacy nor authority in their society are just malcontents and outlaws; a group with both legitimacy and authority may rule for thousands of years.

Vox populi, vox dei is an ancient proverb of unknown origin: "the voice of the people is the voice of God." Enlightment thinkers like John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Paine repopularized the idea that legitimate authority originates from the sanction of the citizenry, rather than from an outside source like God or tradition. They believed that in order to create a truly just and decent government, it must be responsive to the will of the people.

Democracy is an attempt to directly measure that will; in a Democracy, a fair vote bestows the legitimacy that divine favor or royal blood might have conferred in another age. Donald Trump's attempts to stay in the White House in 2021 are based on attempting to cast doubt on the integrity of the 2020 election, not on claims of descent from the gods of old or the Mandate of Heaven. In the United States, legitimacy requires the endorsement of the electorate; nothing else will suffice.

January 20, 2021

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu says "...the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory."

Trump's refusal to concede the 2020 election, desperately trying to overturn the results through litigation and conspiracy theories, is looking for victory after the battle. If he can't convince the public that the vote actually went his way, Trump's claims that the election was rigged against him will never be seen as legitimate, even if he somehow manages to hang on to the White House, which is looking increasingly unlikely.

What makes the election of 2020 and its aftermath such an interesting conflict is that the American public seems more divided than they have been in living memory. A major reason why is that political differences in the U.S. are increasingly due to diverging realities, rather than mere disagreement over values or issues.

American political scientist Francis Fukuyama is doomed to be remembered for his infamous declaration of "the end of history" in 1992. In his book The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama advanced the theory that civilization had reached "...the end-point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

The early 1990s were a good time for Western liberal democracy. The world was still reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, a conflict which had seemed like an ideological stalemate that might last forever. American democracy had practiced smooth transitions of executive power for 200 years, and American politics and policy seemed fairly dull and predictable ever since the Second World War. In February 1992, the Maastricht Treaty creating the European Union was finalized, creating a liberal democratic federation between former enemies that could rival the United States.  

Fukuyama may yet turn out to be right; thirty years later, the USA and the EU still exist and may yet prove superior to other forms of government. But there were many trends that had already begun, whose consequences Fukuyama did not fully appreciate.

The most important change in Fukuyama's time that would be seen as a threat to democracy by 2020 was the proliferation of media outlets in the United States, which began with the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. This change ushered in an unprecedented rise in politically-charged content on public airwaves, such as the Rush Limbaugh radio show (which began in 1988). The trend toward politicized media accelerated with the advent of opinion journalism on 24-hour cable news channels during and after the 1990 Gulf War, and reached its apotheosis with the explosion of the World Wide Web in the mid-1990s.

Over the next few decades, these new media outlets, crafted to appeal to niche audiences and unrestrained by law or scruples, eclipsed their stodgy print and broadcast forebears. Using shameless appeals to sensationalism and scandal far beyond the 19th-century excesses of Hearst and Pulitzer, these information vortices have been carving rifts in the shared postwar American reality. The Trump era birthed such abominations as "fake news" and "alternative facts"—explicit attacks on the nation's shared reality.

Splitting the United States' intersubjective reality may be beneficial for creating a motivated base of fervent supporters, who draw different conclusions than the rest of the country because they're working from alternative facts. But it is also extremely dangerous, because it undermines the legitimacy of the electoral process itself. If a sizable portion of the U.S. population can be convinced that the elected government is illegitimate, they'll begin acting accordingly.

So, who decides the next President of the United States? Up until 2020, it was the enfranchised citizens of the United States. On January 20, 2021, we'll find out whether the country can still coexist in the same reality, or whether it has in fact already split into more than one.

© 2020 Craig A. Butler
First Posted: 22nd Nov 2020
Last Updated: 23rd Nov 2020