Reality Maintenance

The idea that reality is something that is constructed by our minds out of sense experience, and therefore requires design, programming, and maintenance, is a curiously divisive one. To some people — myself included — it is the most obvious, even banal idea in the world; a basic starting assumption required to do any sort of interesting metaphysical thinking. As I’ve argued before, all realities are escaped realities, and the interesting question is, what is the direction/degree of escape?

To others, it is a horrendously toxic attack on all that is Good and True and a French Cultural Marxist Conspiracy Against Enlightenment Values. These people are known as normies.

Setting aside these debates, it’s interesting to try and trace how we construct and maintain realities. Here’s my picture.

Turns out, if you start with sense experience as primary (the blue/gold dress is just the tip of that iceberg of worms) there are at least three distinct well-posed notions of reality — objective, subjective, and social — each of which is best understood in terms of a particular experience of time, or to use a bigger word, a particular kind of temporality. In my previous post on escaped realties linked above, I associated the three with atoms, qualia and bits, but the three kinds of temporality is a more satisfying mapping.

As you might expect, there are Greek gods for all three. Very roughly, you have Chronos for objective time, Kairos for subjective time, and the least-known, Aion, for a sort of outside-of-time eternalism. With each of these notions you get a particular manner of constructing the self (material, introspective, and social), and from that, everything else in the reality gets bootstrapped.

Of course, each of us inhabits a reality that’s a mix of the three kinds of escapism and temporality, so reality maintenance involves ongoing non-degenerate action along all three vectors. Falsification and update of material beliefs is the most familiar kind of reality maintenance (more narrowly referred to as truth maintenance). The other two might be called stream of consciousness maintenance and recognition maintenance.

It is perhaps simplest to think of each kind of reality construction in terms of its associated kind of reality destruction, or death. So you have material death, death by loss of appetite for life (or will to live), and social death by loss of being seen by others in a social reality matrix. I

This gives us 7 degrees of death, based on whether 1, 2 or all 3 kinds of reality maintenance processes have collapsed for you. So there are 6 kinds of zombie, 1 kind of fully alive person, and 1 kind of complete corpse. I’ll leave you to work out the details.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Does your picture of social-reality-maintenance assume you’re trying to affiliate with just one group, or also potentially switching between groups? The former I can see as eternalist, but the latter involves shifts in social selfhood which break time into epochs.

    You could characterize the process of connecting with different people / groups over time, maybe finding ones that fit you better and better, as its own infinite game, albeit one closely tied up with the subjective-reality-maintenance game.

  2. Gerard vanderleun says

    Make your picture bigger and more legible if you REALLY want to communicate an idea about your schematic reality.

  3. As R. Laing puts it in its not much spoken-about Self and Others, there are socially shared phantasies (“normies”) and more — even completely maybe — individual phantasies, serving as “reality” for different types of people.

    “Social shared phantasy” being an expression quoted in a paper from 1955 by a Jaques.
    These are collectively produced and used defence/utility-functioning system, no more no less. However, individual phantasies/”reality” models do serve not very unlike purposes, though in pretty unlike wises.

    In your picture I would replace “truth sensitivity” with “truth sensitivity and ability to stand it”.
    Also, truth should be featured in the subjective circle like it is in the objective.

  4. What if there is no single reality that gets maintained? That is to bring up the suspicion that all of us in all societies house multiple worlds.

    Many argue that dissociation only happens with trauma. But the anthropological record indicates dissociation is more common, an easier observation to make of other cultures than one’s own. This is because all memory is state-dependent. And each state is its own reality, in terms of the bundle theory of mind/self.

    Some of these state-dependent realities are private and others public. Some may be dominant for much of a society (e.g., the Western paradigm of individualism) while others might be limited to a sub-population (e.g., Tanya Luhrmann’s study of Christians who speak to God). But there are still others that operate in more complex ways such as indigenous people who change names and identities when meeting a spirit or having some transformative experience.

    Maintaining realities is part and parcel of shifting realities. You could think of this in terms of Robert Anton Wilson’s discussion of reality tunnels, as epistemological anarchism. There are always multiple realities to choose from. But I’m taking this a step further by suggesting that multiple realities are constantly operating and maybe to varying degrees overlapping.

  5. “Everyone who disagrees with me is a normie.”
    Dismissing ideological(?) opponents in the second paragraph, is that normal? Why not just say ‘some think this is obvious/banal, others do not’ and get on with it. It appears a bit more professional.

  6. To some people — myself included — it is the most obvious, even banal idea in the world

    Sure, that’s why philosophers debated for thousands of years if there could be something outside of their minds if all they have is access to their own mind. Also what can “constructed” possibly mean? If reality is constructed by the mind and the mind by the brain and the brain is real then the brain is constructed by the mind and so on. In order to resolve this whodunit puzzle you’d have to step outside of the circle but how should that work?

  7. Hmm, Bergson, Berger and Boyd.

    None of those exactly fit any of those thinkers, but you could make useful comparisons; the top loop is the most interesting one to recast, as it seems to place it’s failure state also in it’s conditions of being attempted at all:

    It’s apparently a cycle based on atemporality, where the cycle fails based on ignoring temporality.

    The answer for this structural pattern breakdown is obvious; you’ve created a cycle based on conformity, which by comparison with the others would fail because of forms of conformity that were neglected.

    But that would require legitimating conformity within your model, which is boring.

    Or is it?

    The classic model of social construction of reality proposes that people form groups with internal subdivisions, that create message passing structures between different encapsulated models of reality of these subgroups, such that they can pretend to a larger scale consensus view, quietly hiding their disagreements.

    This desire to make this broader structure collectively meaningful involves the creation of larger social norms and ideals, that are supposed to legitimise and anchor the institutions that cause these different worldviews to only overlap practically in ways that allow them to avoid talking about their differences, or to resolve them by standard non-model-destabilising norms.

    In other words, given humans rather than programs, minimising side effects and allowing a heterogeneous group to appear to agree on some objective means arranging the social fabric so that particular disagreements happen to never come up, so that everyone can maintain their own structures of meaning while not having their expressions of that clash with those of other people’s.

    So paradoxically, social construction of reality is about hiding diversity of thought, where an ordered structure has hidden degrees of freedom caused by the decoupling of elements preserved by that order.

    In short, it is about legitimate weirdness.

    So what is the experiment attempted in this model, and the potential source of failure?

    In one model, an individualist one, you could say that by mimesis of independent adults, professionals etc. you create a projection of identity associated with some formalism that allows you to pass as a member of society without deeper investigation.

    So after generating habits by mimesis, you develop a set of social habits related creating a specific embedding.

    Sensitive to challenge, and explanatory social friction, you create a FAQ, a brand, a gender expression, a job description, an investor package, that taps into existing norms or proposes new ones by which your continuing interactions can be accepted even in the absence of deeper understanding.

    This fails when it fails to properly stabilise or legitimise your differences from others, for example by expanding obligations too heavily by making your stated mission and values too “worthy” or all embracing, or by failing to justify your existence, making your commitments to social norms obviously insincere or insufficiently strong, rendering you a reprehensible outcast within the domains you need to operate.

    What is the death cause here? Failure to properly connect normative values with practical concerns.

    How does this alter the diagram? Because unlike the other two that begin with sensation-derived communicative or cognitive events, leading to concrete actions, the top loop derives concrete actions from sensation, then seeks to justify them with cognitive and communicative explication.

    You’re already doing “conventional action”, you just need to show that it is in fact conventional. See the examples of people showing how their works sits in a particular tradition, musicians talking about their influences in interviews, politicians appealing to communal or sacred values, tech businesses trying to build on existing metaphors, media companies going to comic con to show reverence to the fans.

    Because mimesis is almost always incomplete, (thanks to inherent differences, and the operation of other cognitive loops) and because situations always change, and because you might end up connecting two dissimilar streams of culture, you need to assert continuity, and it is that assertion of continuity within the context of change that is the experimental action.

    Failure of continuity is then about failing to plausibly carry forward the values and assumptions that justified previous practices to your new practices, and the emergency action, in red, is what Berger calls universe maintenance, asserting symbolic truths that ground your own legitimacy, either by arguing that the social norms you have been unable to make fit are wrong, packaging together the criticisms of a variety of different dissidents and outsiders to create some minority perspective, and building a combined front of criticism (see atheism, feminism, lgbt, redpill etc.), or by one-upping your detractors by arguing more fundamental alignment to their ideals than their own, suggesting conventional society does not follow these rules because they are too difficult or challenging for the average person, (see monks and various other fundamentalist groups who emphasise their own impracticality or purity), or because they do not truly understand their implications (radical itinerant preachers, career provocateurs etc. who people give the time of day because they share an interest in the ideals they are reconstructing).

    Actually this isn’t a particularly neat dynamic, because there are a lot of other options, like creating new institutions that parallel and compete with the institutions that reject you, (like the black panthers, early american utopian communities, hippy communes etc.) actually going to war to seize control of institutions that regulate social cooperation, all sorts of stuff.

    But if you’re assuming an individualist model of trying to assert your individual existence but as a part of some legitimate class of individuals, the creative action is in reordering the structure of norms and values such that you can get on with your life as a comprehensible member of society.

    On a less individualist level, operating on a slightly broader timescale, it would also be about reordering the structure of norms not only so as to allow you to get on with your life, but so that others can accept the new model of ideals as something that smooths out their own interactions too. This unfortunately doesn’t say anything about the practical effectiveness of this new equilibrium of agreement to disagree, but so long as the actions to keep society operating can be hidden within the different particular localised worldviews, things can keep rumbling on for a surprisingly long time.

  8. Reality is objective, and it exists whether anyone or anything is there to perceive it (and it existed long before there was any form of life to perceive it). Reality doesn’t need to be maintained. Reality is merely what is objectively true. The best we can do is perceive it and try to make sense of our perceptions through the process of reasoning (while realizing that our perceptions may be distorted).

    • A good counter-example is human belief; consciously held human beliefs seem to be most naturally explained as an emergent property of some underlying reality that have concrete effects, so we should be able to say that beliefs are real in the same way that we say chairs are real, (more fundamental rules and properties work together to make them, but because those rules are real, so are their results).

      The problem is that obviously self-conscious beliefs depend on perception. If you realise you think something else, that part of reality changes, because it is your thoughts.

      The same applies to many other kinds of realities that exist as broken symmetries. A house is objectively real, a transport network is objectively real, but the processes that maintain and repair it depend on the beliefs of humans. Unlike thoughts, they have some functional inertia to them; when people stop believing in them, they don’t cease to exist, merely break or operate less effectively, but similarly, habits may also exist, but only stably when associated with or justified by certain ideas.

      In that sense, everyday life may be considered to be real, but socially constructed. In a totally practical sense that the activities and processes going on in it are thanks to the ideas and self-sustaining habits of society. Your car, your name, your web browser, all continue to exist due to people’s activities, and so are real through the action of society.

      So there you have it, the social construction of (parts of) reality (particularly everyday life).

      The question to argue, is how far this actually applies; how many things are concretely dependent on the actions of people?

  9. This maps fairly neatly onto an old post by John Michael Greer, about eras when these modes see more attention:

    Eras when a cultural group focuses on Kairos, he dubs “unicorn time”; Aion-focused periods are called “phoenix time”; and he gives the years of Chronos escapism the term “dragon time”:

  10. Adam Jacobowitz says

    Venkatesh, I’ve discovered your site in the past month and taken the deep dive. Your series series on the Gervais principle was rather eye opening, and was your breakdown on How to Fall off the Wagon. Regarding this piece on Reality Maintenance – was there one or several primary sources that you drew from?