Facing Realities

Mark Pottenger


Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away. - quote attributed to Philip K. Dick.

Three Realities

For many years, LA-CCRS meetings have worked with a model describing three realities. There are many ways to describe these realities, with the most stripped-down saying first reality is reactive, second reality is active, and third reality is unified. All of these realities describe an individual’s beliefs and perceptions and experiences. The model assumes that there is an actual reality behind all the different individual experiences and that this reality is unified, like the individual third reality (or beyond).

Assume a person sees X.

In first reality:

The person responds with reflex reaction Y (with no conscious thought).

In second reality:

The System 1 part of the person’s brain responds with the start of reflex reaction Y.

The System 2 part of the person’s brain consciously evaluates stimulus X and reaction Y and decides to:

a) allow reaction Y to proceed, or

b) allow a modified reaction Y to proceed, or

c) allow a different reaction Z to proceed, or

d) not react, or

e) think through even more complicated possibilities.

In third reality:

The person becomes aware that seeing X means their beliefs include being a person who has X in their world, since inner beliefs and outer world are inseparable facets of a single reality. They then decide whether they want to have X in their world, and, if not, work on the beliefs that include X in their world.


In first reality, we don’t think, we just react as we have been trained.

In second reality, we exercise conscious control over our reactions, and we can initiate actions of our own.

In third reality, we have become aware of a correspondence between inner beliefs and outer world, and are able to work on the inner beliefs. We don’t need or try to change the outer world—we work on our own beliefs.

We believe that the actual reality that people experience through these different individual filters is a unified whole with inseparable spiritual and mental and physical aspects. These aspects can only be DESCRIBED separately—they can’t actually be separated.

For purposes of this model, deeper philosophical questions about whether there is any actual reality underlying our filtered perceptions don’t matter. To function in the world as we perceive it we must act as if there is an actual reality even if our whole world is a simulation.

Most people spend most of their lives in first reality—the reality of daily life. Walking, talking, driving, working, etc.—all the routines and habits of functioning in the world—are first reality. Many people spend no time at all in second or third reality, and most people who do experience second or third reality do so in small bursts, reverting to first reality the rest of the time.

Myopic Preferences

In a series of Great Courses lectures on economics that I listened to recently (Unexpected Economics), I heard a term I don’t recall encountering before: myopic preferences. Myopic preferences are a widespread human mental failing. Most of us don’t think clearly about many issues when we change the time scale, and most of us are especially bad at taking the short-term actions needed to act on long-term thinking and planning.

Examples from the lecture include:

1) Saying we would wait one day a year from now (366 days instead of 365 days) to get an extra 10% in a payment, but not being willing to wait one day now (tomorrow instead of today) for the same increase,

2) Joining a gym but not using the membership by actually using the gym, and

3) Expecting a very different rate of return for money we lend on a ten-year time scale than on a ten-day time scale.

Myopic preferences affect saving, borrowing, energy conservation, chronic diseases, and many areas of life where we fail to do what we say we want to do.

In first reality, science is the best corrective lens for myopic preferences. Science, referring to an accumulated body of knowledge, is as accurate a model of a real world as first-reality humans are able to create. Science, referring to a method for acquiring and organizing knowledge, is the best way first-reality humans have so far developed to model a real world. Individual scientists, being human, inevitably fall short of the ideals of objectivity that the scientific method assumes, but in the long term the body of scientific knowledge refined by many scientists approaches the accuracy the method assumes to be possible.

In the multiple realities model, second reality can be a corrective lens for myopic preferences. A person operating in second reality does less knee-jerk reacting and more careful evaluating and clear thinking than a person operating in first reality.

Whether relying on first-reality science or second-reality awareness, people who are able to see beyond myopic preferences can plan and act better. A few examples of modern myopia include:

Flood insurance—the U.S. Federal government provides flood insurance for people to build in places that are so obviously bad risks that no private insurance is available. A BAD policy.

Earthquake preparedness—most people (including me) living in areas prone to frequent or large earthquakes don’t like to think about earthquake risk, and don’t do any preparations on a routine basis.

Retirement planning—with the exception of Social Security, there is no U.S. national retirement system, so every individual is on their own for retirement planning. A huge percentage of the population does not save or invest enough to be able to count on a secure retirement. I know I had a very hard time ever saving money until I started automatic transfers that required no action by me after the initial setup. Multiple studies have shown that opt-out (must take action NOT to save) company retirement plans produce much better results for workers than opt-in (must take action TO save) plans.

Fire prevention—this is especially bad in California, where utilities have been responsible for many large and destructive files over many years. They know their power lines through forests are badly maintained, yet they don’t make the necessary changes to make them less likely to cause fires. Because of the COST!

Anywhere you look in human history or around the world today you will find mental myopia: people living near active volcanoes, people ignoring anthropogenic climate change, people smoking, people driving drunk or drugged, etc., ad infinitum.

A basic principle in economics is that people respond to incentives. We need to build smart incentives into our culture to encourage people to correct their myopia more often, and replace many perverse incentives that currently reinforce myopia.


I try not to use teleological arguments, partly because my personal omnitemporal pantheistic belief system doesn’t readily support them, but a teleological question was raised at the last LA-CCRS meeting before the California shelter in place period started. Paraphrasing as I remember hearing it: What is the purpose of COVID-19 (what spiritual lesson are we to learn from it)?

My answer is that the lesson I HOPE humanity learns from this pandemic is to FACE FACTS.

Scientists have been warning for many years that the world is so interconnected that any new disease could become a global pandemic, and that some human practices make new zoonotic diseases more likely. The concept is widely known—in fact, a novel using the concept was apparently what prompted President Clinton in 1998 to start the process that led to the Strategic National Stockpile.

In the U.S., a Strategic National Stockpile of medical supplies for emergencies was started in 1998 and built up until it was severely depleted during the 2009 flu pandemic. It was never built back up after that—Congress didn’t appropriate the money needed.

California had its own medical emergency stockpile a decade or more ago, yet the legislature(s) & governor(s) allowed the stockpile to be dispersed or depleted.

The U.S. National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, which was supposed to plan responses to pandemics, was established in 2016 under the Obama administration and disbanded in 2018 under 45 (the loser I prefer not to name).

What the U.S. needs now is clear leadership, but what we have is a pathological liar in power. The noise & confusion & lies from the White House about COVID-19 have done a lot to make the situation MUCH WORSE in the U.S. The nature and severity of the pandemic was denied and downplayed for critical months during which a fact-driven administration could have made a huge difference by:

1) pushing in January for development and manufacturing of critical supplies: coronavirus/COVID-19 tests, protective masks, ventilators, hospital beds, etc. As it is, those critical supplies haven’t been available and won’t be available when most needed due to the lead time needed from startup to delivery, and the 45 administration is lowering health standards rather than addressing shortages.

2) issuing national testing and quarantine orders in January. Instead, we got false claims that there was testing and a xenophobic one-country ban until the virus was already so widespread that there was community transmission (no exposure to any known travelers from centers of infection).

3) issuing a national social distancing order in January, and a national shelter in place order in February or March. Instead we have a patchwork of state and local variations of varying effectiveness.

These are just a few of the things most obvious to a person who reads a newspaper. I’m sure expert epidemiologists can list many more.

I believe this pandemic is exposing the fundamental failure of the GOP ideology that has been demonizing government and idolizing private businesses for years. The JOB of government is to see to the well-being of the people being governed—this includes safeguarding & managing all commons (air, water, land, etc.). Preparing for pandemics is one of many government duties, which governments in the U.S. have failed in many ways at many levels. A government employee ripping off the public is in violation of job duties. The JOB of any private business is to make whatever profit it can while providing whatever product or service it produces. Any social good a business does is at the discretion of the people who run it or forced on it by government regulations. A business employee ripping off the public is congratulated or promoted unless they are caught violating a LAW imposed by a government. Running a government like a business is BAD government and BAD business.

A fundamental assumption in much economic thinking is that a free market is the best environment for the most people, because in a free market competition between businesses will lead to better products and services at lower prices. Examples of market principles successfully applied in less-obvious areas are fishing-catch quota markets and carbon credits. The U.S. economic environment is a market that is a long way from an ideal free market (heavily favoring some people and businesses over others). We still have laws, though they have been weakened and poorly enforced, to try to prevent or regulate business monopolies because they break the free market assumption by eliminating competition. Businesses that get a monopolistic advantage in any area are unrestrained by any threat of competition in that area, so their behavior is only constrained by the ethics of the people running the businesses. In many ways, governments ARE monopolies in their spheres of control, so they must be structured and run by different rules than businesses, with rules & regulations, oversight mechanisms, watchdogs, conflict-of-interest laws, clear statements of duties to serve the governed population, and many other things not usually built into for-profit businesses.

I hope that the pandemic will lead more people to see the folly of much of recent American politics, but that hope is faint. A well-documented human mental failing is a very poor ability to judge truthfulness, reliability, and trustworthiness of statements and people, and a well-documented chronic human mental habit is a strong tendency to reject new knowledge that conflicts with previously accepted beliefs.

Infectious Diseases

COVID-19 is the name given the disease caused by a novel (new to human knowledge) coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2. As I am writing this in early April 2020, scientists have learned a lot about the virus and the disease, but still have a huge amount more to learn. The fundamental reason a new virus can cause a pandemic is the nature of the human immune system. Anyone exposed to an infection who recovers from it retains immune cells that will recognize that infectious agent if exposed to it again. This is why we mostly never get as sick from multiple exposures to the same causes. However, infectious agents (viruses, bacteria, fungi, etc.) evolve much faster than people or people’s immune systems, so later infectious agent exposures are rarely actually the “same” infectious agent. The rapid mutation of influenza viruses is why the flu infects so many people every year, and why flu immunization shots vary in effectiveness from year to year depending on how well vaccine developers guessed which strains of flu to target.

The novel coronavirus is different enough from other coronaviruses (causes of colds, SARS, MERS, etc.) that nobody has any existing immune system memory to fight it. How ill a person gets with COVID-19 depends on how well their immune system fights a NEW disease. The range is from symptoms so mild that people don’t even notice to fatal. The only actions we can take to reduce the impact of the disease are standard public health measures and palliative care. The public health measures are all designed to slow the spread of the virus by encouraging people to reduce potential exposure. Social distancing and sanitation are the core measures. We don’t yet know if the current measures are strong enough, or if everyone needs to wear a face mask whenever they go out. We don’t yet know the actual multiplier for how many people on average can catch the disease from someone who has it. We don’t yet know if people without symptoms are contagious, though evidence to date strongly suggest they are. We don’t yet know what percentage of people who catch the disease have mild cases and what percentage of cases are fatal. We don’t yet know if someone who got COVID-19 and recovered actually has long-term immunity, or if they are still vulnerable to re-infection. Most of the things we don’t know are due to a massive failure to develop and deploy testing to identify who has been exposed to the virus. Full knowledge of who has been exposed and who has developed the disease would let scientists resolve most of those unknowns, which would let governments set policies better than the current guess and hope mess.

There is active research being done to determine whether any existing drugs or other treatments do any good against COVID-19. So far, there is nothing solid. There is work in progress to develop vaccines against COVID-19, but even the most optimistic estimate puts availability over a year away. Once more data lets scientists resolve some of the unknowns above, it will be possible to refine the current public health measures and say how much social distancing for how long we really need to control this pandemic.

Tracing causes

As an exercise in first-reality causal thinking, we can trace some of the causal factors leading to the COVID-19 pandemic and the U.S. response messed up by the current occupant of the White House.

Despite years of warnings from scientists, China has not stopped many traditional practices that increase the likelihood of new zoonotic diseases.

In January 2020, the GOP members of the U.S. Senate (my nickname: Struthiomimus Senators) chose party over people and refused to remove 45 from office after he was impeached.

In 2016, Russian meddling added to a lot of other factors put 45 in office despite Hillary getting over 3 million more votes (Human Nature and Votes).

For several decades, right-wing politicians in the U.S. have been eroding our society’s safety nets and regulations restraining behavior against the common good, leading to less of the population having good health insurance, leading to increased economic inequality and homelessness, leading to more people living paycheck-to-paycheck with no security, and in general creating a situation in which the majority of our population isn’t able to cope with the health crisis of a pandemic and the economic crisis of the measures needed to slow the spread of the disease.

In the 1780s, to achieve ratification, the framers of the U.S. Constitution created the compromise that gives small states disproportionate voting power and created the Electoral College system, which made it possible for the loser of the 2016 popular vote to be put in office.

Worrying about Problems vs. Thinking about Solutions

In Activism vs. Evil I very briefly addressed a serious philosophical question. For this discussion, the question can be presented as “How do we make sure we are working on a solution and not amplifying a problem?”. If we stick strictly to first reality, the question is meaningless. If we are working on preparedness and response planning, we are clearly working on solutions. The question comes from awareness of third reality, where we know that thinking about things can increase our likelihood of seeing those things in our world. The key is the kind of thinking. Risk assessment and contingency planning and preparing for emergencies and any other dispassionate solution-oriented thinking and actions should all be unlikely to amplify the problems. Worrying about the problems is what makes them more likely. Emotion invested in thoughts, rather than dispassionate logical thinking, is what tends to produce real-world manifestations.

Miscellaneous thoughts and responses to LA-CCRS discussions:

ALL LAWS include social and/or economic assumptions and values. Drugs laws say some drugs are good & other drugs are bad. Lack of gun-control laws values guns over people’s lives. Tax laws drive a lot of individual and business behavior through tax rates, deductions, exemptions, loopholes, etc. The tax treatment of home mortgages has a large effect on U.S. rates of home ownership. The current structure of laws in the U.S. is heavily rigged to help the rich get richer and everyone else get poorer. There are many kinds of taxes: federal, state, county, city, district, income, sales, property, value-added, wealth, inheritance, transaction, etc. In recent decades, almost all of these taxes have been adjusted in ways that make them less fair for the overall population and make it easier for the wealthy to keep their wealth and add more. U.S. marriage laws say which matches of people are allowed & valued and which aren’t. (Interracial marriages were banned well into the 20th Century. Same-sex marriages were banned into the 21st Century. Marriages of more than two people are still banned. Etc.)

Questions at a recent LA-CCRS meeting touched on cosmology, astronomy, planetology, geology, biology, paleontology, and more. There are actually courses (and probably books) available that touch on all of these disciplines and more in an integrated way. Look for material on Big History. A Big History course from The Great Courses that I listened to years ago nicely covered material from the Big Bang to the development of our Solar System and of Earth to evolution to human prehistory and history to modern culture to projections about the future.

For many years I have used the image of knowledge as a balloon, the surface of which is where the known touches the unknown, so the more you know the more you become aware you don’t know. The knowledge inside the balloon of what we know forms networks of connected concepts. Modern society seems to have developed a sort of negative mirror for the balloon of knowledge: an echo bubble of ignorance and misinformation. The inside of a bubble of ignorance is also a network, but it is made up of a reinforcing set of false beliefs. The inside of the bubble serves as an echo chamber, keeping out true knowledge. The know-nothing streak of American culture holds on tight to its bubbles of ignorance.


This is an excellent article from the August 3, 2019 issue of Science News about how beliefs and attitudes can affect health:


This is an article about media stories that promote divisiveness:


This is an article about a Shadow Network of right-wing broadcasters covering much of the U.S.:


Copyright © 2020 Mark Pottenger

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