In my own mind I like to play out lots of fictional scenarios before I go to bed. If I have recently watched a Marvel movie, then I might be teaming up with Iron Man or Captain America in my own superhero story while I brush my teeth. If I was listening to a Star Wars audio book, then I might be engaged in a space battle while my day winds down. Since I was a kid I have had my own running fantasies with me as a main character in some of the science fiction stories I like the most. In my own mind, these stories are as real as the stories that appear on the big screen.
My individual stories, something the nerd community might call my own “head canon,” are subjective. They exist only within my own consciousness, and as a result I can change them or abandon them and they will no longer exist. They are subjective to my own individual consciousness, not dependent on the subjective consciousness of others and if I want I can completely ignore the rest of the world or certain aspects of the larger story.
Contrasting my individual fictions are the larger narratives that I engage with in my mind. The stories that make it on the big screen, onto a streaming platform, or into official books are inter-subjective. In the book Sapiens Yuval Noah Harari describes the existence of the inter-subjective by writing, “the inter-subjective is something that exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals.” Iron Man has died in the current Marvel story line, and his death is now part of the inter-subjective communication network linking all the fans of the Marvel movies. In my own mind Iron Man might come back to life, but my individual consciousness doesn’t change the larger story which is inter-subjectively linked.
Outside the world of science fiction, inter-subjective linking is an important part of human societies. We see it in sports rankings, political organization, and marriage and family norms. We debate which sports team is better and have our individual opinions about who is a great player and what teams are the best. We can individually believe that our team will win the championship, should be ranked #1 in the country, or got screwed out of the playoffs without our subjective beliefs influencing how the sports season actually plays out. We can also have inter-subjective beliefs about sports that drive the narratives around the season and can lead to coaches being fired, players being traded, and coordinated booing at bad officiating calls.
Within politics and marriage and family norms we can have our individual beliefs, such as beliefs that one political system would be better than another, beliefs that polygamy is better than monogamy, or that kids need to leave the house at 18. There is nothing that makes representative democracies inherently better than divine monarchies, nothing that makes monogamous relationships inherently better than polygamous relationships, and no reason kids should be afforded the option to live at home after they turn 18. In each of these areas our inter-subjective beliefs have come to shape the way we understand the world, our relationships to others within the world, and our subsequent beliefs about how the world should ultimately be ordered. Representative democracies fit with other inter-subjective beliefs which have come to discredit divine monarchies. Monogamous relationships have certain advantages in helping ensure more men find romantic and life partners which blends with other inter-subjective beliefs that form the backbone of modern stable societies. The idea that one becomes and adult and full citizen at 18 and not 17, 19, or 21 is also an inter-subjective belief that we support together. It makes no difference if I decide that a young man is an adult at age 17 rather than 18. Inter-subjectively, our culture has agreed that full citizenship begins at 18.
Thinking about the relationship between the subjective and inter-subjective is helpful for understanding the world. It is helpful to see that our individual beliefs are often little more than our own twist on a fictional story. It is helpful to see that larger institutions and structures in our worlds are based on little more than shared fictions. Recognizing this dynamic can change the way we interpret and approach debates and arguments about topics for how we all should live and coordinate our lives together.