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The Intersubjective Continuum

Belief and truth interact in strange ways

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Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.

—William James

The relationship between belief and reality is stranger than it seems. Most of us assume reality simply is, and our beliefs can only reflect it more or less accurately. But the spiritually-minded often invert that formula, claiming that reality is a reflection of our beliefs.

The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle.


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Seeing the Continuum

Some facts are simply facts. No matter what you believe, the earth is roughly spherical, global average temperatures are rising, and arsenic will kill you.

But our common sense notion of reality breaks down when we start to ask subjective questions. There’s no single, definitive answer as to whether Nic Cage is a good actor, or whether eating meat is wrong.

It’s tempting to just partition reality into two buckets: the Subjective, and the Objective. By cordoning off value judgements into their own special domain, we might preserve our common sense notion of Objective reality. But it’s more productive to think of reality as a continuum between the two, with a murky Intersubjective middle-ground:

continuum showing subjective on the left, objective on the right, intersubjective in the middle. Different domains are placed along the spectrum. Qualia, emotions, music taste are toward the left; planets, gravity, weather are toward the right; friendship, bitcoin value, psychopathology are scattered in the middle
I’m happy to quibble about the placement of any of these in the comments—each one could make for a great discussion

The borders between all three levels are porous. You could imagine e.g. a mathematical model that shows Democracy creates more social stability, moving the statement “Democracy is a good form of government” towards being an objective truth. Or you could imagine an argument over where exactly the base of the mountain starts—is it 42 miles away, or 41.5?—making it more intersubjective.

Within any subject, it’s important to situate ourselves on this spectrum. The more Objective a subject is, the harder it is to sustain false beliefs, and we should expect to see broad agreement on what’s true. At the Subjective end, facts are fluid, influenced by beliefs, amenable to change; here, disagreement is the norm.

But no domain sits perfectly at either edge; all are more or less Intersubjective.

Objective Reality

At the Objective end of the spectrum, reality is entirely independent of belief. No matter how fervently you believe the Earth is flat, it isn’t so.

[Objective] Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.

—Philip K. Dick

Beliefs in this domain can be easily categorized as true or false, and false beliefs tend to create problems. I wouldn’t want a flat-earther flying a plane or planning a trip to the moon.

But probe any domain long enough, and subjective cracks start to appear. As they say, all models are wrong, and precisely which wrong model we subscribe to is often arbitrary; ontological choices, political allegiances, personal values, and historical happenstance all influence the outcome.

Some examples:

On the left reaches of the Objective realm, we find domains like psychopathology. A diagnosis of mental illness can be mostly objective—say, if someone isn’t able to care for themselves, or repeatedly self-harms. But if a mind is simply maladapted to its particular society, the label “illness” is an intersubjective judgement. (See also: ’s You Don't Want A Purely Biological, Apolitical Taxonomy Of Mental Disorders)

Subjective Reality

I believe I am in Hell, therefore I am.

—Arthur Rimbaud

At the far Subjective end, reality and belief are deeply intertwined: if I believe I’m happy, I am happy (and vice versa). And while Objective facts remain facts indefinitely, the set of Subjective facts is constantly shifting and evolving.

An example: for years I insisted I didn’t like milk in my coffee, but here I am sipping a latte. Did my tastebuds change? Or did I just drop the silly notion that drinking black coffee is manly? I was convinced that milk in coffee tasted gross, but that sensation probably had more to do with my identity than with how my tongue is wired. Strangely, my latte is starting to taste worse as I write this.

We can try to objectivize the Subjective realm through neuroscience, finding externally observable correlates for sensations like happiness and taste. But what happens when self-reports contradict1 observations? Interior experience is the final arbiter of truth here, not external, observer-independent measurements.

Leaking out on the right-hand side of the Subjective realm we find domains like fashion and aesthetics. Each of us has our own sense of what looks good, and no two aesthetic sensibilities are perfectly aligned. And yet our tastes follow mathematical rules, and change predictably with the crowd’s. (See also:’s Taste Games)

Intersubjective Reality

The Subjective and Objective collide in weird ways at the Intersubjective level. The truth here is an aggregation of opinions, which by some alchemical process becomes reified into fact.

The existence of a friendship, for instance, depends on precisely two things: the belief of both members that the friendship exists.

Do you like me or not?…Whether you do or not depends, in countless instances, on whether I meet you half-way, am willing to assume that you must like me, and show you trust and expectation…But if I stand aloof, and refuse to budge an inch until I have objective evidence...ten to one your liking never comes.

—William James, The Will to Believe

Intersubjectivity operates at societal scales too. Pop culture, art, and fashion might be driven by individual tastes, but those tastes are often mimetic—we imitate the tastes of our friends, in-group, and idols. Things are popular because we like them, sure, but we also like them because they’re popular.

Country borders are another perfect case of Intersubjective truth: without humans around, borders would disappear entirely, reduced to some carefully placed roadsigns and deteriorating walls. This is why China is so insistent2 that Taiwan not be called a country: if everyone believes Taiwan belongs to China, then it belongs to China.

Of course, Intersubjective truth isn’t determined by a simple majority-rules democratic vote—people with more power and status have an outsized voice. Politicians, tastemakers, and thought leaders are able to direct public opinion towards new Intersubjective realities. When Warren Buffett announces he’s bought a company’s stock, its price goes up—he literally changes the company’s value by decree.3

But “who has power and status?” is itself an Intersubjective question, which is what makes this domain so dynamic. If enough Americans believe Donald Trump is the rightful President, it doesn’t matter who voted for who—Donald Trump will find himself sitting in the Oval Office. If other powerful people disagree—say, the Supreme Court and Joint Chiefs—then the people might be overruled. Unless those leaders are broadly seen as illegitimate!

Everything here depends on shifting opinions. And so we often end up with multiple, competing Intersubjective Realities—cognitive dissonance at a societal scale.

When those conflicts arise, both sides will claim their stance is rooted in Objective fact—and at times this might be true. But all Intersubjective conflicts give rise to in-group dynamics: huge swaths of unrelated values, tastes, and symbols become lumped together as a single identity, pushing both sides further and further into Subjectivity.

A large minority of Americans do indeed live in a world where Donald Trump is the true President, regardless of vote counts. Following the election, many believed he’d soon be reinstated.

And with sufficient numbers, the insurrection would have succeeded, transmuting fervent belief into fact.

Living the Continuum

Before coming across the notion of Intersubjectivity, I saw the world as two non-overlapping domains: the Subjective and the Objective. But that false binary drove me mad.

On the one hand, I was confronted by the fact that some music and art seemed objectively bad. In many cases, everyone around me shared the same opinion. But someone must find it good, at least the artist! Aesthetics seemed to follow a loose set of rules, but also no one could be called “wrong” for breaking the rules. Even stranger, breaking rules seemed to be an important part of the game!

On the other hand, while studying math in college, I was surprised to learn just how much taste and opinion mattered. I’d fantasized that mathematics was perfectly, unassailably objective. And while I could mostly indulge that fantasy—especially at an undergraduate level—occasionally I’d glimpse cracks in the foundation. Studying the history of axiomatic set theory, as well as Gödel’s quashing of Hilbert’s dream, put my fantasy to rest.

But dropping that fantasy only strengthened my confusion. Sometimes I’d despair that the pursuit of scientific truth was completely hopeless. I wanted to keep facts separate from values, but everything I found was a mixture of the two.

Years later, while in a particularly fluid mental state, I finally grokked the fact that all domains lie on this continuum of Intersubjectivity. I realized that, while no domain is purely Subjective or purely Objective, there’s still a gradient. We can still distinguish math from music, even if it’s not a categorical distinction.

All that cognitive dissonance gave way to a clearer, fuller picture of reality. Suddenly I could approach any domain on its own terms, without trying in vain to push it to one side or the other.

And that huge space of subjects occupying the uncanny valley between Subjective and Objective extremes—psychology, politics, economics, morality, fashion—have gone from being frustrating to being fun. I no longer write off left-leaning topics (like fashion) as frivolous, or try to shoehorn right-leaning ones (like psychology) into rigid theoretical frameworks.

Every domain, no matter how cerebral or banal it might seem, is pregnant with Intersubjective weirdness to explore.

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I recently saw a Psychology professor claim that if you show women sexy pictures, their Nucleus accumbens light up just as much men’s, but they’re more likely to tell you they’re not turned on. Should we believe the women, or the brain scans? The professor seems to imply that women are self-censoring, but I’m not so sure. I imagine the block isn’t simply a verbal one—perhaps some cultural programming is stopping the experience of arousal, not just stopping them from articulating it.


Fun fact: many Western books are printed in China, because it’s cheap. But authors are forced to remove references to Taiwan first.


At least in terms of its earnings multiple—presumably the company won’t suddenly start making more money just because he bought a piece. But a nod from Buffett and a rising stock price can help prop up a company’s brand, reassuring investors, employees, and prospective customers—eventually leading to a better product and more revenue. When perception of a company improves, often the more Objective metrics follow suit.

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