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Consensus reality is one approach to answering the question 'What is real?' , a profound philosophical question, with answers dating back to prehistory. It gives a practical answer - reality is either what exists, or what we can agree by consensus seems to exist. The term is disparaged by some because by implication it may mean little more than "what a group or culture chooses to believe," and may bear little or no relationship to any "true reality", and, indeed, the term challenges the notion of "true reality".

The difficulty with the question stems from the concern that human beings do not in fact fully understand or agree upon the nature of knowledge or knowing, and therefore (it is often argued) it is not possible to be certain beyond doubt what is real. Accordingly, this line of logic concludes, we cannot in fact be sure beyond doubt about the nature of reality. We can, however, seek to obtain some form of consensus, with others, of what is real. We can use this to practically guide us, on the assumption it seems to approximate some kind of valid reality.

Consensus reality is therefore a term with two meanings. To those who adhere to the materialist philosophy, it signifies the objective overall space-time reality believed to exist irrespective of the perceptions of any given individual. For those who adhere to other philosophical views, it refers to the agreed-upon concepts of reality which people in the world, or a culture or group, believe are real, usually based upon their common experiences as they believe them to be.

Throughout history this has also raised a social question: What shall we make of those who do not agree with consensus realities of others, or of the society they live in? Answers have varied from concluding that such people are eccentrics, mentally ill, divinely inspired or enlightened, or evil or demonic in nature. Reality enforcement is a term used for the coercive enforcement of the culturally accepted reality, upon non-conforming individuals. It has varied from indifference, to incarceration, to death.

General discussion

Consensus reality may be understood by studying socially constructed reality, a subject within the sociology of knowledge. (Read page three of The Social Construction of Reality by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann.)

Consider this example: reality is different for people who believe in God than for those who believe that science and mathematics are sufficient for explaining life, the universe and everything. In societies where God-centered religions are dominant, that understanding would be the consensus reality, while the religious worldview would remain the nonconsensus (or alternative) reality in a predominently secular society where the consensus reality is grounded in science.

In this way, different individuals and communities, at different developmental stages, have fundamentally different world views.[1] These are not merely more mature view, but fundamentally different ones, with fundamentally different comprehensions of the world around them, and of the constructs within which they live. Thus, in terms of consensus reality, a society that is (for example) secular and one which believes every eventuality is due to gods and devils, will have very different consensus realities, and their entire beliefs on issues from science to slavery through to human sacrifice may differ in direct consequence because of the differences in consensus concerning the world they live in.

Consensus reality in science and philosophy


Materialists, however, may not accept the idea of there being different possible realities for different people, so for them only the first usage of the term consensus reality would make sense. To them, someone believing otherwise might be considered delusional.


Objectivists, though not materialists, also reject the notion of subjective reality; they hold that while each individual may indeed have his own perception of reality, that perception has no effect on what reality actually is; in fact, if the perception of reality differs significantly from the actual reality, serious negative consequences are bound to follow.


Some idealists hold the view that there isn't one particular way things are, but rather that each person's personal reality is unique. Such idealists have the worldview which says that we each create our own reality, and while most people may be in general agreement (consensus) about what reality is like, they live in a different (or nonconsensus) reality.

Social consequences of consensus reality issues

Views on the term "consensus reality"

The connotation of the term "consensus reality" is, with few exceptions, disparaging: it is usually employed by idealist, surrealist and other anti-realist theorists with the implication that this consensus reality is, to a greater or lesser extent, created by those who experience it. (The phrase "consensus reality" may be used more loosely to refer to any generally accepted set of beliefs.)

Social aspects of consensus reality

Some painters, writers and theorists and individuals employing a number of means of action have attempted to oppose or undermine consensus reality. Salvador Dalí's intended by his paranoiac-critical method,[1] for instance, to "systematize confusion thanks to a paranoia and active process of thought and so assist in discrediting completely the world of reality".[2]

Reality enforcement

The theory of reality enforcement holds that belief in consensus reality (the "reality" of "reality enforcement" is used in this sense) — on which the apparent persistence of consensus reality's existence may depend — is "enforced" or promoted through various means including sanctions applied against those who challenge it.

The theory of reality enforcement is opposed by those called "reality enforcers," who occasionally use the phrase in order to mock those who believe in the theory, or, more loosely what they see as farfetched theories or conspiracy theories generally.[3] (It should be noted Alan C. Walter uses the phrase "reality enforcers" in a highly idiosyncratic way having nothing to do with the theory of reality enforcement.) These "reality enforcers" appeal to an objectivist theory of reality, rejecting multiple subjective realities which could diverge considerably; this makes nonsensical the theory of "reality enforcement".

Believers in reality enforcement are typically sympathetic to anti-psychiatry. While Mental health codes in some United States states specify that a diminished "capacity to recognize reality" (taken from some definitions of psychosis[4]) is part of the standard for mental illness, "there is controversy over what is considered out of touch with reality."[5] Richard Rogers and Daniel W. Shuman, in their book Conducting Insanity Evaluations have, however, said that the standard refers to the intactness of the individual's perception of external stimulae" and equated it with "reality testing,"(p.85) a definition that goes right to the heart of the argument. The validity of this as a standard in general has also been questioned, and some have compared "the process of forcefully instituting individuals for expressing their beliefs in society to reality enforcement."[6]

"Reality enforcement" is also used in a number of more or less related senses, as, for instance, to refer to the attempts of parents or others to coax or induce a person diagnosed with autism or Asperger's syndrome to abandon thoughts or behaviours typical of the syndrome(s).[7] It is also used in other loose senses,[8] such strictly adhering to verissmilitude in clothing and makeup when playing a role,[9] or (apparently) providing a "reality check" for another person.[10]

In a more general sense, "reality enforcement" is used to mean an (often violent or forceful) ending of a "fantasy" in the person, persons or group on whom it is enacted, or the assertion, using force, of some "reality" to those who are not aware of it, or are in denial about it.

See also

  • Consensus reality may be related to theories of false consciousness.


  1. According to philosopher Ken Wilber and most developmental studies. See Ken Wilber's book A Brief History of Everything.

External links

Consensus Reality is a record label.

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