Is the world external to ourselves, internal in our minds, or shared with others through the process of narrative? To answer that, first we need to decide what we mean by “the world” or “reality”?
Certainly the brain as an organ of thought can have no direct experience of the world outside the bony skull. It can have no actual sensation of any kind. Even “headaches” are a matter of blood pressure, muscle spasms, and pain in the nerves of the head and neck, not in the cerebral lobes. The only events that the brain can detect directly are cerebral accidents like strokes and concussions, and then most of those events are mediated by consciousness and its loss, or by changes in brain function and awareness, rather than by direct detection and assessment of the damage. Our minds are circuit ghosts that run through a network of neurons, rather than the neurons themselves.
Everything that we think of as reality and the world around us is conveyed to the brain by nerve stimulation. This sometimes occurs directly, as with nerve endings embedded in the skin and other tissues, yielding the senses of touch, taste, and smell. Mostly—and for the senses our minds are most aware of and involved with—the nerves connect with organs that receive signals from and interpret the external environment: the eyes to detect light, eardrums to detect pulses in the surrounding air, the inner ear to detect the pulls of gravity and acceleration, and so on. Each of these organs as well as the sensors in the skin, nose, and tongue are reporting their findings to the brain all the time.
Here is where the subjective/objective problem starts. The brain can process all these inputs, but the mind—the active awareness, the collective effect of those “circuit ghosts”—cannot pay attention to all of this simultaneous and often conflicting information. The brain of a developing organism automatically sets up hierarchies of stimulation awareness that govern the mind’s picking and choosing among the continuous flow of signals. For example, we react to the sound of our own name even among a jumble of overlapping restaurant chatter or a stream of messages through a public-address system. The loudest noises and the brightest lights and colors get priority in this hierarchy and pass directly to our awareness, because they are usually associated with danger. The brain’s monitoring of the edges of the retina—our peripheral vision—gives priority to movement there over signals that indicate outline or color, because the movement of things around us is also usually associated with danger and more important than their shape or color.
So, even though our brains may receive accurate reporting of signals related to sight, sound, and touch, they don’t always reach our awareness for interpretation and action. In this way, the objective data become partially subjective. Of course, much of that external reality is not subject to either mediation or reinterpretation by the brain. Fall out of a window, and you will find that gravity takes over and you impact on the pavement whether you think about it or not. In the same way, explosions, collisions, accidents, and intentional violence all have a reality that is not brain-mediated and subject to our awareness.
Human beings have also developed mechanical instruments designed to isolate and mediate signals from the physical world before they reach our senses for interpretation. For example, a spectrometer can pick out the actual wavelength of a beam of light. It can measure and tell a human observer that the photons in what appears to be blue light are oscillating with a wavelength of 440 nanometers, or green light at 530 nm, red light at 700 nm. Even if you have been raised by aliens or by color-blind humans, so that you traditionally call red light “green” and vice versa, the spectrometer can give you an accurate reading of the light as it is defined by the majority of other human beings. In the same way, an electronic tuner can identify the pitch of a note, say Concert A at 440 Hertz, even if you are personally tone-deaf.1
So, even though the brain mediates, selects, and interprets the reality coming in from the sense organs, a measurable and appreciable—that is, objective—reality does exist outside of human awareness. Still, awareness plays a big role in interpreting and providing context for that external reality. Is red light more pleasant to the brain and to the awareness “ghost” that rides inside it than green or blue light? That is a matter of subjective interpretation. Does a red light in a traffic signal mean “stop,” while green means “go,” and yellow means “do you feel lucky”? That, too, is a matter of interpretation based on learned—or, in the case of yellow, badly learned or misremembered—rules governing human activity.
The truth, as I see it, is that reality exists objectively but is interpreted subjectively. And when we go about putting reality into words—as I am doing right now, or when I try to relate an experience or tell a story in one of my novels—then the process becomes even more subjective. The idea, the story, the sense data that my brain recalls and tries to fix in words which other humans can then read, understand, and so vicariously experience becomes subject to the limits of my vocabulary, the meanings which I have learned to attach to certain words, the connotations with which those words resonate in my own private thoughts, and the choices I make among all these variables, on the fly, and in the heat of creation. While a piece of writing—a novel, a poem, or a news report—may become a crystalline distillation of reality for an enthusiastic reader, it is at the same time more and less than an absolutely faithful recording of the originally perceived reality.
In the same way, when a producer, director, cast of actors, and crew of set dressers, camera operators, and computer-graphic artists set about to recreate a beloved bestselling novel or even an original screenplay, they will be creating a new interpretation based on the particular skills, vision, and choices of each member of the production company. It may be, in both the author’s and the audience’s view, a crystalline distillation of the story, but it will still be different from the act of reading the novel or screenplay, or living the reality as it might have occurred in real life. While a novel or screenplay may have had no existence “in real life,” the same acts of selection and interpretation—of words in a book, or of skills and vision in a movie production—apply to the creation of a biography or a biopic about a person who actually lived and had a historically measurable effect on reality. The result in the telling will be different from the reality of living.
So we, as aware human beings, dance back and forth across the line separating objective and subjective all the time. We live in our minds, but our minds also participate in a reality that affects other human beings.
And now a third consideration has come into our lives. Based on the theories of postmodern literature and our evolving social sciences, we must deal with “the narrative.” This is more than the plot and story line of a single novel or movie. This is a shared construct of political and social—if not indeed physical—reality, put together from the writings of influential theorists, reporters, academics, and others who get paid for expressing their opinions. This sociopolitical narrative becomes the basis for new novels and movies, for the selection and interpretation of news stories, for more editorials, blogs, and opinion pieces, and for the crop of memes—those bits of ideological weed that would seem to crystallize one aspect of the larger narrative in one instant of time—that all reverberate in the social, media, and social-media echo chamber of modern society.
For anyone who bathes in the daily waters of politics, economics, opinion, and written and enacted literature—that is, books and movies—the narrative becomes an intermediate reality. Outside the brainbox of the skull, there exist both the objective reality of blue light at 440 nm or Concert A at 440 Hz and the narrative reality in which certain people are automatically good and virtuous, while others are wicked and demonic; certain historical facts are remembered and cherished correctly, while others are dismissed as damned lies; and certain acts or intentions are considered rational and lifesaving, while others are known to be foolish and cruel. And when a human encounters conflict between his or her subjective experience or memory and an externally shared narrative which he or she has accepted, either cognitive dissonance or a personal crisis occurs. When a society encounters conflict between its public narrative and external reality, a political, social, or economic crisis occurs. And sometimes the narrative wins—to the detriment of personal or social existence.
This is not actually a new phenomenon, although we now celebrate this kind of consensus in earlier times as “the narrative” and consider it either the obvious end product of a cohesive society or a mindless form of manufactured groupthink. Every religion since nomadic herders began coming together in their summer pastures has spun its own narrative, its greater vision, in which the lonely circuit ghost inside each brainbox partakes. The Greeks had their narrative of the Trojan War, a fictitious relic of a forgotten age—not unlike the Arthurian narrative of chivalry for the English—which shaped their ideas about what men and women were supposed to feel and do, how the gods were to be honored or mocked, and how the best of human intentions can sometimes go awry. The Roman world was held together largely by its own narrative, played out in the minds of emperors, generals, proconsuls, and tax collectors.
Narrative is strong in some people’s minds. Control of the narrative is a kind of power. And narratives that have the charm of simplicity, the echo of truth, and the ability to enforce popular desires will eventually drive out any narrative that is too complex, difficult to verify, or particular in its voice and vision. Narrative persists in any social setting until a harsh reality intrudes—the political party collapses or becomes irrelevant; the society is invaded or encounters some physical catastrophe like an earthquake or meteor strike; the economy is disrupted by some new technology or goes broke through a lack of production or an excess of debt—and then individuals are left to grope among the pieces to assemble their own, subjective views of reality once more.
Which of these—objective, subjective, or narrative—is the true reality? None of them. All of them. They are the blend of physical, private, and public or social needs, drives, and obligations that guides and motivates every human being. To choose one among them and elevate it to supremacy is to miss the whole point of being human.
1. But some perceptions remain an artifact of the mind. When I was living back East, I would sometimes sense the sky on a summer afternoon under certain conditions of humidity as green rather than blue. This was not the bright green of a laser pointer or fresh grass, but the muted green of pea soup. It may have been an actual color, reflecting the green plants in the fields up into the sky, or from moisture high in the atmosphere scattering sunlight to disperse the 530 nm wavelength more dominantly than 440 nm. But it sure looked green to me.