We are isolated in different realities. Where is our common humanity?

In the Metaverse, we’ll don virtual reality helmets and go to school, work, shop, and socialize from the comfort of our homes in a collaborative computer-generated animation. We will appear as avatars that we can shape however we want and in this virtual universe we will interact with other people’s avatars.

One of the Metaverse’s masterminds, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, who changed his company’s name to Meta in line with his new technological priority, told podcaster Lex Fridman of his ambitions: “A lot of people think the Metaverse is about a place, but one definition of it is that it is a time where fundamentally immersive digital worlds are becoming the primary way we live our lives and spend our time.”

That is, he hopes to replace reality with virtual reality. Another internet mogul, Marc Andreessen, a member of the Meta board, is explicit about this. “Reality has had 5,000 years to get good and it’s clearly still lacking for most people,” he said. “We should – and we are building – build online worlds that make life, work and love wonderful for everyone, no matter what their level of reality deprivation.”

The notion that “you create your own reality” is associated with pop psychologists. Now the construction of one’s own reality seems technologically feasible. In fact, the belief that we can have “alternate realities” has a long pedigree.

The 20th century was the age of modernity, characterized by the triumph of science and trust in progress. With that came a feeling that the scientific method is the only way to determine what is true. But scientific truths are nothing more than bare facts of no particular importance. Therefore, questions about meaning, values, ethics, religion and culture – areas that concern us more than scientific facts – must be purely subjective.

These came to be regarded as “constructions”. Existentialist philosophers said that in a meaningless world we must create our own meanings not through an act of intellect but of will. Political theorists went further and said that meaning is created not just by will but by will to power, not just by individuals but by social groups creating beliefs and institutions to impose their power on other groups.

Truth claims are actually masks for racial, sexual, gendered, and other forms of oppression. Such constructivism has become the hallmark of postmodernism, which has spilled over from science into all culture and is found on all sides.

Now we see the consequences. Of course we are politically polarized. If culture is nothing but groups trying to wield power over one another, how could it be otherwise?

When we all inhabit different realities, it’s no wonder we feel isolated from one another. Of course, if we don’t recognize our common humanity, we will mistreat one another.

Without objective, rational truth, we cannot argue with one another. Disagreements are interpreted as attempts to “impose your truth” on me. Because your beliefs come from your will rather than your intellect, persuasion is impossible: you are my enemy, whom I must silence and punish.

And in a climate where explanations are nothing more than constructed narratives and explanatory paradigms, conspiracy theories thrive.

In contrast, classical thought emphasizes a shared, objective reality knowable through reason. And that despite all their differences, people share a common humanity. Christianity goes further and teaches that human beings have a transcendent value in the love of God, which is the source of both good creation and a moral law to which even those in power are subject. These currents would come together in liberal democracy with its ideals of liberty, equality and individual rights.

These cannot be sustained by postmodern constructivism. Today we can still draw on our moral heritage to denounce oppression. But postmodern critical theory teaches that oppression is an integral part of all societies. Ultimately, if your group oppresses me, the only way I can seize power is to impose my reality and oppress you.

Of course, liberal democracies have a lot to answer for. But slavery, racism, the annihilation of indigenous peoples, and other crimes certainly grow from a failure to recognize our common humanity and a failure to apply transcendent moral truths.

Despite our self-constructed realities, objective reality has a way of breaking through. COVID, wars, economic troubles and natural disasters are not just mental constructions. But we are ill-equipped to “take care of them.” Actual reality is multifaceted and complex, in contrast to the cartoonish metaverse and simplistic reductionism of so much contemporary thought. We need a return to reality-based thinking.

Gene Edward Veith is a retired English professor and author of numerous books on Christianity and culture. He will be speaking about his book Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture this Thursday at Faith Lutheran Church in Plano. He wrote this column for the Dallas Morning News.

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