The flavors of reality

I. A Call in the Night

On April 26th, 1986, at approximately 1:30 a.m., a call ran into one of the fire stations in Pripyat.

"Fire Department"

"Hello, Ivankov?"

"Yes. Yes?"

"You've been called to Pripyat... Hello?"

"Yes. Yes, I can hear you."

"At the nuclear plant over there, in the third and fourth blocks. The roof is on fire."

The voice on the line wasn't lying. As the fire trucks sped down the road toward the burning Chernobyl Nuclear Plant, the night sky was set ablaze with orange flames. The young men had just jumped off the engines when the commander at the scene, Lieutenant Volodymyr Pravyk, grabbed them by the neck and started yelling orders.

The first priority was to smother the burning roof of Reactor No.4. before the spreading fire would cause another detonation in the adjacent, still active core. To do that, they needed to clear some of the strange, black debris lying around on the ground.

"Is this graphite?" asked Misha, one of the firemen. Grigorii Khmel, a driver, shrugged, signaling his lack of knowledge or maybe disinterest, and kicked the piece away. A different guy, hopping down from the truck, bent down and grabbed the black, rock-like object. In the dancing orange lights, the material had some faint sparkle to its oily black surface. It reminded the fireman of the pencils they used at the station.

"It's hot," he said, but when he looked up, Misha and Grigorii were already gone. They went to the nearby cistern to start to pull water for the truck. The fireman dropped the chunk and ran over to help his colleagues. As he jogged toward the others, he noticed a faint taste of metal in his mouth. Like when someone accidentally bites their tongue and tastes a bit of blood.

"Odd," he thought to himself, then shook his head and refocused on the task. After all, the fire won't put itself out.

Although he didn't know it, Misha was right: the material on the ground was graphite. It got expelled from the reactor core by the blast, where it was a part of the control rods, designed to regulate the chain reaction. Each and every piece was wildly radioactive, spitting out gamma rays that—like tiny, invisible knives—sliced into the bodies of nearby firefighters. The rays split the men's DNA, cut through their cells, and left utter destruction in their wake. But they did so silently—all the radiation left behind was a faint taste of metal.

31 people died in the immediate aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster. Most were firefighters and other plant personnel helping in the disaster relief. The cause of death for most of them was acute radiation sickness—a term they never heard, caused by a physical phenomenon they knew nothing about.

What the unfortunate firefighters of Chernobyl had met that night was objective reality. The kind of reality that does not care if you believe in it. Gamma radiation, viruses, and gravity can all happily kill you, even if you deny their existence.

Or as the story usually goes, especially then.

II. Making Friends

At this very moment, across the globe, countless children have just imagined a new friend for themselves for the very first time. It might be a big purple bird called Zorp, with a long neck and a gentle nature. It might be Captain Skyhook, a charming rogue who always knows what to say to bullies. Or it might be just another kid, Charibat, who keeps their creator, Silwa, company on those long nights while mother is away at work.

These friends can be very real to their imagineers. Zorp can have long conversations with his friend, Mei, Captain Skyhook takes Timmy on exciting expeditions around the house, and Charibat always knows what to say to Silwa to cheer her up. But, this is also where their realness ends.

Sure, the families may play along with the little ones, but nobody really believes that Zorp, Charibat, or the Captain are real. The imaginary friends live only in the hearts and minds of the kids, and once the creators stop believing—the bird, the pirate, and the ashen-haired boy will cease to exist.

Imaginary friends are an example of subjective reality. A reality that can have meaningful effects but is entirely dependent on the belief of the individual and, therefore, ultimately fragile.

If you stop imagining, subjective reality goes away.

III. Between Worlds

Most people spend their lives knowing only these two realities and the respective truths they birth: something is either objective or subjective. Can radiation kill you? Objectively yes. Is the Snyder cut good? That's a subjective (albeit hard) no from me, but you might disagree.

We occasionally argue about certain facts belonging to one group or the other, but we generally understand the world to be black and white. Something is either a fact or fiction.

Except it's not.

There is a third entity, a realm of shadows between the inky blacks and the pure white, one that holds enormous sway over us all. A realm called intersubjective reality.

IV. How the Germans Became the Germans

Today, Germany is the largest and arguably most powerful state of the European Union. The country spreads out over 350 000 square kilometers and is home to some 83 million people—the vast majority of whom identify as Germans. But wind the clock back by a mere 200 years, and you can find neither the country nor the German people.

Before the start of the 19th century, there were over 300 political entities on the land that makes up today's Germany. These territories ranged from free cities to small duchies to larger kingdoms, like Prussia or Bavaria. Most of them technically belonged to the Holy Roman Empire headed by the powerful Habsburg family, but in practice, people's lives were only affected by the immediate ruler of their city, duchy, or kingdom. As such, they identified not as Germans but as Bavarians, Prussians, or as the good folk of the City of Nuremberg.

However, this all started to change when Napoleon rode into town.

Bonaparte brought war to the fractured lands and steamrolled the forces of the several hundred princes and kings. In 1806, after the utter defeat of Prussia, he created the so-called Confederation of the Rhine and absorbed the territories into his ever-growing French Empire. The former rulers could retain their titles and some autonomy, but in every significant way, they answered to Napoleon now.

This forced assimilation created something unexpected in the newly conquered population. They chafed against the French rule and—using the shared language and the common hatred toward their oppressor as a basis—started to form a new identity. A national one. Philosophers and free-thinkers began to speak of a united German people and a unified state for them. They argued not for a coalition or a confederation but for a single nation-state: Germany for all German people.

In the corners of the French Empire, peasants and lords alike started to toy with a dangerous idea: what if we're not Bavarians, or Prussians, or simply the good folk of the City of Nuremberg? What if we are Germans?

This new common cause and sense of belonging were harnessed by the German princes who rose up against the French in 1813, and in alliance with Austria, Russia, Saxony, Sweden (and eventually the British), crushed Napoleon and ended his reign over Europe.

The war didn't bring full German unity, but the genie was out of the bottle. In the next sixty years, the people of the princedoms marched forward on the road to united Germany, sometimes even against their own rulers. The larger powers of Europe tried to stop the process, but ultimately they could only delay it.

An idea is a dangerous thing. Once it's taken hold, it's almost impossible to eradicate.

Roughly seventy years after people first started to whisper of a common German identity, on January 18th, 1871, the German Empire was proclaimed at the Palace of Versailles. A new nation was born, and the face of Europe changed overnight.

There are two interesting aspects to this story.

First—Germany is totally made up. Neither the land nor the people changed very much between 1771 and 1871. The only thing that changed is how the people narrated the world to themselves. What once was the sovereign Kingdom of Bavaria became the Free State of Bavaria in Germany. Bavarians became Germans. The mountains and rivers, the DNA, and the bodies of the people remained the same—the only thing that had changed was an idea in their head. But that was enough.

Second—once enough people believed Germany to be true, it became true. A mere idea, held by many people, was a mighty enough force that not even the reigning powers could stop it. The people who believed themselves to be German literally willed their country into existence.

Put these two aspects together, and you get what we call intersubjective reality.

Germany is not real in the sense as the splitting atom is, but it's also not fiction like an imaginary friend would be. If you personally stop believing in Germany, the state stays where it is because others still believe in it. It's intersubjective—a reality made up of the collective subjective realities of millions of people. And it's really real. Similar to radioactivity, Germany exists in our world. It affects its people, its trade, and diplomatic partners; it shapes history. It's a figment of the imagination, but since we act as if it was true, in essence, it becomes true.

An idea is indeed a dangerous thing.

V. Being Demigods

Real gods rule over all types of realities. Humans are obviously not there, but I would argue that we are also no longer mere mortals. The potential to imagine realities gives us almost unlimited power in most human matters.

We are the quintessential demigods.

Once you know about intersubjectivity, you'll start seeing imagined realities everywhere. The vast majority of your life is spent in intersubjective boxes. Your gender role, your place in society, the laws you obey, the country you live in, and the money in your pocket are all pieces of collective fiction. There is actually very little that's objectively real about you or your life.

Which is oppressive and liberating in equal measure.

Some of our imagined realities are pretty bad, sure. Small pocket dimensions of hell that billions and billions of tiny demigods created together to then imprison themselves in those pockets. And even if you know, they are figments of the imagination, that doesn't make them less true or reduce their power over you. The tyranny of other people's imagination oppresses you as well. This is the depressing part.

The liberating part is that you now know that most of what you live is fiction. Fiction that can be changed with a sufficient number of other demigods at your side. We imagined all of this together, so we can also change it together. If you can convince enough other humans of an idea, you can will almost anything into existence.

Once you recalibrate what is objective, subjective, and intersubjective, you'll see that the universe is wide open for change. And that's an exhilarating feeling.

There are limits to what we can achieve, hard walls that box us in. You won't convince the split atom to become whole again, no matter the number of your allies. But the frontiers of what's possible are far more out there than you're usually taught.

So, the next time someone says to you something can't be changed due to an objective reason—flash the smile of a demigod and ask:

"Are you sure?"

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Sources

  1. The HBO miniseries Chernobyl, Episode 1: 1:23:45
  2. The Chernobyl Disaster article on Wikipedia
  3. The Unification of Germany article on Wikipedia
  4. The Germany article on Wikipedia
  5. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

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