Imagine that we’re both playing one of those virtual reality video games. We’ve put on these things that look like night vision goggles. The software was designed by natural selection to incorporate all, or almost all, of the key features of the immediate environment: those necessary to survival (e.g., where the walls are, the stairs, etc.). If there’s a coffee table in the middle of the living room that we could potentially trip over, you’ll see it in your simulation and I’ll see it in mine. If I speak, you’ll hear my voice; if you speak, I’ll hear yours.

But we could still be having vastly different experiences of the room. Because much of what we see is just a function of the video game we happen to be playing. The stuff that’s generated by the software (e.g., the bat I see flying around the room) looks every bit as real as you and the coffee table.

The real world exists. It’s out there. But we don’t have direct access to it. We can’t take the goggles off. Ever. But we can compare notes. If everyone else sees color, and I don’t, I might reasonably conclude that color exists and I’m colorblind. If everyone sees things, and I don’t, I might reasonably conclude that I was born blind. If I see a bat flying around the room all the time and you don’t, I might reasonably begin to suspect that the bat’s not real, that it’s just part of the simulation, part of the video game I’m playing.

Science is all about figuring out what’s out there. It’s a systematic attempt to figure out what’s real via measurement and experimentation. Psychology is far more agnostic about reality. It’s all about figuring out what’s real for you. It’s interested in the relationship between the video game you’re playing—the totality of what you see, real and imagined—and your experience of, and behavior in, the world. Religion is all about getting large numbers of people to play the same video game. Politics does the same thing.

When we argue about politics, we are, to a large extent, trying to get others to see things the way we see them, to play the video game we’re playing. This involves getting people to see features of reality that they may not normally see. But it also involves getting them to see things which are merely illusionary products of the video game you’re playing. I was born into a cult. As such, I understand, probably better than most, the importance of keeping people who haven’t quaffed the Kool-Aid around, people who aren’t playing my video game.

Is Reality a Collective Hallucination?

Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip, is a bit of a homebody. He says he often goes days and days without leaving the house. As I read his blog this morning, it occurred to me that the central assumption that underlies his worldview—namely, that reality is a collective hallucination—is to some extent rooted in this reality.

Although the idea that reality might be little more than a collective hallucination has probably occurred to thoughtful people since the beginning of time, it has achieved widespread acceptance only amongst certain kinds of people. In ancient China, it was couched in the language of Buddhism, and it appealed primarily to government workers, eunuchs, urban dwellers, and bureaucrats. In the twentieth-century West, it was often couched in the language of postmodernism, and it appealed primarily to childless academics living in urban areas, people like Michel Foucault. Today, it’s often couched in the language of evolutionary psychology, and it appeals primarily to techies, computer programmers, and Silicon Valley types.

The language changes but the kind of people it appeals to stays the same. The idea that reality is little more than a collective hallucination has always appealed to people who are, for the most part, divorced from the earthy realities of farming and child-rearing, and the bloody realities of animal husbandry and military life. This detachment allows them to develop a remarkably theoretical view of the world. I take a long walk in the woods whenever I’m tempted by the likes of Scott Adams. Spending time in the woods reminds you that a real world exists out there, outside of the virtual world of fire-light shadows that we’ve created for ourselves in Social Media Land.

Where the Birds Are

Walking through the woods with a seasoned birdwatcher, someone like my cousin Michael, is a mind-blowing experience. You see things you’ve never seen. Hear things you’ve never heard. It’s like a veil is lifted, revealing a whole new world: a magical world, that was always there. I’ve spent years and years exploring the forests of Mount Royal Park. And I thought I knew them pretty well. Far better than most. But my cousin and his wife disabused me of this notion last summer. I went for a walk on the Mountain with them whilst they were in town.

Michael and May live in British Columbia and it was their first time on Mount Royal. Yet they saw things I’ve never seen, and heard things I’ve never heard. Not, I hasten to add, because they’ve got superhuman senses (Spider-Man’s hearing, Superman’s sight), but rather because they’ve been avid birders for decades. They’ve trained themselves to see what’s always there, what the rest of us miss.

What’s true on Mount Royal is true of intellectual life: if you’ve spent years and years training yourself to see one particular feature of the human world, such as race or class or gender, you can probably see a great deal that the rest of us miss. Seeing the world through your knowing eyes is something we should all do from time to time. Because it’s good to know where the monsters are concealed, and how the patterns are revealed. But it’s also good to remember that there are other deeply meaningful things going on in the forest besides the birds.

I’ve yet to meet a birder who believes birds are the only thing worth seeing in the forest, just as I’ve yet to meet an entomologist who believes butterflies are the only thing worth seeing in the garden. But I’ve met plenty of intellectuals and activists who seem to believe that the particular pattern they’ve trained themselves to see is the only pattern worth seeing.

Our progressive profs promised us a Savior in grad school: a solution to this problem. The Hydra-Headed Goddess of Intersectionality was supposed to rescue us from rocks and ruin. But She didn’t. And She hasn’t. The problems and the patterns remain: most working-class white guys who grew up poor talk about class a whole lot, most middle-class white women foreground gender, and most people of color try to get us to remember race. To some extent this is a simple function of privilege. Privilege is, after all, for the most part invisible to those who possess it. So we shouldn’t be surprised to find a wealthy white woman who only seems to see sexism. Nor should we be surprised to find a middle-class African-American man who only seems to see racism.

Claims and counterclaims of epistemic privilege aren’t going to get us anywhere interesting. Same is true of personalizing and demonizing. We’ve been down those dismal roads before. We’ve been to those lonely dead-ends. Perhaps it’s time to remember that we’re an intensely social species, blessed with language and imagination. Perhaps it’s time to remember that we’re remarkably good at learning from each other. Perhaps it’s time to go for a long walk in the woods. Show me where the birds are, friend. You’ve got my full attention. I can’t wait to see what you see.

—John Faithful Hamer