Monday, August 3, 2020

Culture & Politics

Epistemology, U.S. Politics,

and the Social Construction of Reality


BergerLuckmann / Wikimedia Commons
    EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. - 7/28/2020 -
In the late 1980s, I was a fired up, eager-to-learn sociology major at Greenville University, eager enough to never miss a class with either of my two main sociology instructors, professors Rick Stephens and James DeLong. I respected both as knowledgeable experts in their field, though each later went on to teach elsewhere while I decided to make a switch and transfer to Southern Illinois University Edwardsville to study journalism.
   Sociology is a field of study I admire for a lot of reasons, but one concept I found particularly intriguing was called “the social construction of reality.” If you've ever had even an entry-level sociology class, you may recall the phrase because it's a major sociological theory, introduced in 1966 through a book written by Thomas Luckmann and Peter L. Berger, entitled: The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. (Penguin Books, New York, 1966)
   Thinking about this theory the other day, it suddenly dawned on me just how much of a living example today's tumultuous situation is. Are we witnessing “the social construction of reality” in action, in all its messy, dirty and chaotic glory? Maybe so.
   It's not a simple concept, but in short, “the social construction of reality” refers to the idea that:
  •    People are shaped by their life experiences, backgrounds and interactions with others, including their perceptions of reality.
  •    An inter-personal and social process of repetition and “habitualization” leads to the creation and institutionalization of various social structures, reciprocal roles, and moral codes. See: Introduction to Sociology
  •   What people understand as “reality” is really the product of a complicated interpersonal social-interaction and negotiation process that societies go through in determining what is socially acceptable. See: Identity and Reality
   According to the Thomas Theorem, “successive definitions of the situation” play a key part in establishing such norms of social acceptability. Other sociologists have described the process, on the individual level, as a type of self-fulfilling prophecy -- such as when a false idea or rumor, if actually believed to be real by the person who holds it, can end up having real-world consequences. In other words, the individual's reality, though false, was essentially “constructed by an idea."
   Well what I see happening is just that -- one big mammoth struggle to “define the situation,” to define who we are as a country, as a culture, and as human beings, to establish meaning and values and our shared “social reality,” and ultimately to see whose definition will stick.
   Add to that the influence of an epistemological divide that has existed in Western Civilization since its inception, and the current state of U.S. politics and the cultural divide becomes more understandable yet.
   What type of evidence is sufficient on which to pin a belief, especially one that would rise to the level of foundational?
   Does subjective, emotional evidence suffice? What about empirically-based evidence? Or evidence that you can only touch, see and verify with the senses? What about revelation-based or supernatural evidence? Does evidence only qualify as valid if based on group identity? These are straight up epistemological questions about the validity of knowledge and how to attain it -- and how you answer them is every bit related to our current state of affairs, I'd say.
   Do you believe that truth, values, and knowledge are easily discernible through intuitive means, emotive reasoning, common sense or are simply innate to human nature? Or do you believe they are only really trustworthy when they correspond with hard facts, experience, science, and logic? You can see where I'm going with this.
   I should also say that I'm not the first to point out the “epistemic crisis” we're experiencing.
   “The US is experiencing a deep epistemic breach, a split not just in what we value or want, but who we trust, how we come to know things, and what we believe we know -- what we believe exists, is true, has happened and is happening,” writes David Roberts in a Nov. 2, 2017 Vox piece entitled, America is facing an epistemic crisis.
   Roberts blames “the US conservative movement” for much of the crisis, through its attacks and rejection of the mainstream media and other institutions, such as science and academia, which “society has appointed as referees in matters of factual dispute.”
   I would agree that what we're seeing today has been exacerbated by partisan attacks on key social institutions -- institutions of the kind you might even expect to play a roll in the theorized “social construction of reality,” but Roberts should know that progressive interests have attacked the credibility of various institutions that conservatives respect as well, religious organizations being one of them, and from the view of conservatives have been doing it for a long time. I'm not taking sides, but I know how they feel.
   Roberts does make a good point though, by pointing out some fundamental differences.
   “The pretense for the conservative revolution was that mainstream institutions had failed in their role as neutral arbiters — that they had been taken over by the left, become agents of the left in referee’s clothing, as it were,” Roberts writes. “But the right did not want better neutral arbiters. The institutions it built scarcely made any pretense of transcending faction; they are of and for the right.”
   I don't disagree with him.
   My opinion: Today's glaring ideological polarization seems to me to be just more of the same old “way-of-thinking” drama that has been playing out on the world's stage for centuries, interspersed with relative periods of peace before the next crisis in truth, trust and knowledge flares up, as it has now, like a bad virus. Complete prevention may be impossible, but not letting it get out of control by selecting leaders with level heads and the ability to speak truthfully and with love for all of humanity, rather than put up walls, would seem to me a good idea. I believe that this goes for all leaders, whether in government, ecclesiastical institutions, academia, private organizations, or in the world of business.
   One more suggestion: pay attention to your teachers and professors, because you never know when some of the wisdom they impart -- while appearing irrelevant at the time -- just might be of value years down the road! I'm sure glad I did.

For further reading:

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Search for Truth

Hope In A World of Superstition

And Empty Promises

By Steve Rensberry
   I embrace the unknown, the uncertain, the non-absolute, the mysterious, and the need for one's fundamental beliefs to be rational, logical, and reflective of the totality of human experience. Tentative conclusions, skepticism, and a worldview derived from empirical reality and science, as opposed to emotion, spiritualism and magical thinking, are what the universe demands.
   Making leaps involving absolute “trust,” and believing wholeheartedly in things before all the evidence is in, is simple credulity, or foolishness if you will.
    Think about it: committing oneself to an all-encompassing belief system that promises to reveal afterwords what reason and logic dictate should come before any “commitment to believe” -- especially when such commitment involves concepts on the level of an absolute -- is circular reasoning at its best, assuming to be true in the premise that which it seeks to realize in the conclusion.
   Morality and ethics are grounded in basic human needs and the necessity of survival. If we don't treat each other kindly, the way we ourselves want to be treated, we don't survive. It takes no leap of blind faith or trust, no assumption of “insider knowledge revealed only to those 'who believe,'” no existential moment of assumed contact with the divine, and no castigation of other human beings as worthless and evil simply for refusing to believe as you do.
   One's inherent desire to live an enjoyable life free of pain begs us to limit our own actions lest we all suffer the same fate. It leads us to create laws and social rules that mitigate our competing interests, to protect ourselves -- directly, indirectly, or inadvertently -- from abusing one another. Being moral means living life in the here and now. It means treating other human beings as precious and invaluable. It means opening our eyes to the finite nature of our finite existence, being kind, and seeing all of life, the earth, our neighbors, the animal kingdom, everything, not as intermediate stepping stones to some “higher” reality, but as something beautiful and worthy in their own right.
   Being moral means being honest with oneself and admitting that we human beings are neither omnipotent, omniscient, nor omnipresent, and claiming to know someone “on a personal level” who is adds no more weight to the argument than does any other subjective, unfounded assertion.
  There is hope for humanity because there are others like myself who believe in truth, knowledge and the goodness of others, who refuse to believe their eyes are lying when death comes knocking, and who will never give up in doing what is right. There is hope because there are people still left in the world who genuinely care for other people, not because they are told to care by some assumed entity or sacred book, not because they fear eternal punishment, not because the people they care for think the same way they do, but because life matters -- in and of itself.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017


Unreal Time

By Ellen Proctor

   Who is it? The phone rings, every hour on the hour. Actually, at about five minutes before the hour. I don't know who it is, so I call it, “It.” Whoever “It” is, its clock must be a little fast.
   I wonder if this is by accident or design.
   I set my own clocks to an unknown time, rather fast, because I am afraid of the humiliation of walking into someplace late. Not that I have anyplace to go, really. Still, it helps to know that it's always a little earlier than I think it is when I look at my clock. But if I want to know the real time, I have only to look out my bathroom window at the bank clock downtown. The problem with this is, sometimes I look out to see that it's 11:96.
   I wonder if this is by accident or design.
   I think some prankster has hold of my life. It calls, listens to the wild static on my phone, and hangs up after I answer. Or perhaps it's expecting someone else to answer. Sometimes, when I walk in the door, the apartment has the air of someone having just walked out. I begin to wonder whether someone else lives here when I'm not home, in some furtive and elaborate time-share arrangement.
   The local high school thinks someone else lives here. Some kid named Eric. I get a lot of telephone calls for him, sometimes from high school girls, but more often from the school. I tell them over and over that Eric doesn't live here, that this is not Eric's phone number, that I don't even know Eric, but they don't seem to believe me.
    The girls keep calling. The school never removes my phone number from his files. Enough people think this is Eric's phone number that I almost believe it myself. I know a little about Eric now. Girls like him. He doesn't seem to like school much. Instead of going to school, maybe he spends his time here instead. If he does, I wish he'd clean up the place a bit. He probably just sits here amid the clutter of unpaid bills and unwashed dishes, reading my books.
   Instead of cleaning, I sit, thinking about it. Who is It? My clock says it's 12:34. I'm afraid to look out the window, afraid it'll be 11:96. I'm afraid to look at the phone, afraid it'll ring. I'm afraid to leave, afraid Eric will come in and resume his own domestic life among my belongings.
   Of course, I don't really believe any of this.
   Or at least, not most of it. Eric's real phone number could differ from mine by one digit. These people could simply be misdialing. The every-hour phone caller could be a very persistent Someone with a wrong number, or perhaps Eric himself. Eric calling hourly to see whether I'm home, whether it's safe for him to come in, whether the coast is clear. The bank clock is simply broken, of course, although perhaps it could somehow feel me looking at it. Giving me a sly wink from its electronic eye. Signals from this prankster.
   I know people who rely on their “higher power” to get them through the minute crises of life. I don't think I can rely on mine. I think that this prankster is what passes for my own higher power. I think its name is Eric. It likes to play with time. I almost believe it's what's causing the roaring static on my phone. I wonder whether my phone is actually linked to some alternate dimension, where someone named Eric actually lives at this address, and where 11:96 is an actual time of day.
   Of course, I don't really believe any of this.
   What I really need to do is to set my clocks to the correct time, stop answering my phone, and go out of the apartment.
   Yes, I need to go out of my apartment and hide outside, where I can see both the door and the fire escape. Where I can see without being seen. I need to lie in wait for It … or Eric. I also need to sneak up on that bank clock. The trouble with the clock is that it's not consistent. Sometimes it displays a time such as 3:42, just like any other self-respecting clock. Sometimes my phone rings and it's actually for me. Sometimes there isn't even any static on the line.
   I wonder if this is by accident or design.
   I'm starting to feel a bit guilty about staying inside. I feel somehow responsible for Eric's not being here. I could be making him homeless. I like to say that I have compassion for the homeless, but perhaps I'm part of the problem instead of part of the solution. I think I should go out so Eric can come in.
   Of course, I don't really believe any of this.
   What I really think is that Eric is my alter ego, my shadow self, my animus. When the bills aren't paid, blame it on Eric. When the dishes aren't done? It's Eric's fault. Actually, it's not really his fault, because he doesn't really know what time it is. How can anyone be expected to do anything on time, or show up for school, in a world where it can be 11:96 at any given moment? What kind of time is that? 11:96 is not time to go to school. It is not time to run out to buy stamps. 11:96 can be a lot of things, but one thing it is not, is time.
  I'm starting to think that maybe I'm missing the divine message in all of this. Like this 96 thing. It could be an apocalyptic message from the Beyond, A key to the cryptic numerological warning in the Book of Revelations? Or, maybe, relating to the year 1996. A 9 is just an upside-down 6. There is a 6 in my phone number.
   I wonder if this is by accident or design.
   What would Carl Jung say about this combination of things? If this were a dream, his interpretation would say that all the images and elements would be, quite simply, parts of myself. The unreal time is a signal, he might say, of knowing I'm not ready to face these things. This is borne out by my sense that someone has always just left as I walk in the door, someone with whom I'm unable to come face to face. Walking in the door is, of course, a symbolic entrance into the dreaming aspect of my psyche. The telephone is a modern archetype of the voice of the unseen, the Higher Power, perhaps, attempting to communicate its cryptic messages.
   Of course I don't really believe any of this.
   It's 12:49 by my clock. It could be five minutes until twelve. It could be 11:96. The phone rings. Who is it? I hear static. I say hello. It hangs up.
   Suddenly it becomes clear to me. It's the archetypal divine prankster, Trickster. Telling me to look beyond the commonplace events of life. Telling me not to live a humdrum existence. Yes, I see it now. Life is not a series of minute crises. It's a series of little mysteries, to solve or not to solve. That is the real question. Trickster is here, in the telephone and in the clock, giving me clues about the nature of truth.
   Of course I don't really believe any of this.
   It's all true, and none of it is true. Anything is possible and everything is impossible (or at the very least, improbable).
   I wonder if this is by accident or design.

(Reprinted by permission - 5/3/2017)

Friday, January 8, 2016

Life's Dilemmas

Teleological Illusions

and the Creation of Meaning

 By Steve Rensberry

   Few phrases are as presumptuous as the phrase, “everything happens for a reason.” It is, nevertheless, nearly the axiom that guides all other axioms for millions of people who believe that life is governed by some type of divine, supernatural architect. Often it is voiced in the aftermath of some particularly painful and hard-to-understand tragedy, or in moments of despair and uncertainty. As an effort to offer comfort and assurance or to ease someone's pain, it is an understanding sentiment. The problem is with the term everything. Why not say that “Some things happen for a reason,” or perhaps, “When some things happen, we can sometimes learn from it?” Because such phrases, I would argue, simply lack the absolute certainty that people seem to crave. Is free will an illusion? Is life devoid of all uncertainty? Logically it would have to be, if everything does indeed have a purpose, would it not?
  Philosophically the view is known as a teleology, a position which seeks to describe and explain life's phenomenon by appealing to purposes rather than to their historic and natural causes. The word's origin can be traced to 1740 and German philosopher Baron Christian von Volff, who coined the term teleologia, meaning “entire, perfect, complete.” Exactly what these purposes are, and how they are known, are questions that invariably invoke issues of trust and leaps in logic and reason.
   One way to understand the teleological frame of mine is to think of life--right down to the tiniest minutiae--as being pulled rather than pushed, of flipping cause and effect on its head, or of swapping a scientific and realist-based linear view of reality--as a series of space-time transformations from past to present to future--with one that flows in exactly the opposite direction. From a teleological perspective, time and causation exist but in a magical realm, the precise mechanism of what nobody understands.
   Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, an opponent of the mind-body dualism of Descartes, writes: "What is termed a 'final cause' is nothing but human appetite . . . . I must not fail to mention here that the advocates of this doctrine, eager to display their talent in assigning purpose to things, have introduced a new style of argument to prove their doctrine, i.e. a reduction, not to the impossible, but to ignorance, thus revealing the lack of any other argument in its favor. For example, if a stone falls from the roof on somebody's head and kills him, by this method of arguing, they will prove that the stone fell in order to kill the man; for if it had not fallen for this purpose by the will of God, how could so many circumstances (and there are often many coinciding circumstances) have chanced to concur? Perhaps you will reply that the event occurred because the wind was blowing and the man was walking that way. But they will persist in asking why the wind blew...And so they will go on and on asking the causes of causes until you take refuge in the will of God -- that is, the sanctuary of ignorance.” (Wolfson, Harry Austryn, The Philosophy of Spinoza, Meridian Books, Inc., New York, 1960. Appendix, pg. 60).
   The concepts of chance, luck, and happenstance simply do not exist in a metaphysical sense, from the teleological perspective, because everything has purpose, and everything has meaning -- by definition. By what mechanism do such meaningful circumstances happen? They happen by way of a thing called reality, but it is a reality which has been personified to the extreme, where human characteristics and impulses have been projected onto a being who is assumed to be multi-dimensional, eternal, and hyper-personal. He, she, or it, is seen as synonymous with life -- omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, everywhere and nowhere, everything and nothing, a conscious, personal and infinitely intelligent entity that knows not only the immediate thoughts and desires of each human being, but those they will experience in the future. It is a being who is considered to be love, hate, light, “the word,” everything and nothing, both incomprehensible and intensely personal. Above all, this being is considered to be wholly beyond and unconstrained by distance and time.
  Authors Aiyana K. Willad and Ara Norenzayan, of the University of British Columbia, outline in a 2013 manuscript the idea that the teleological mindset, and religious belief in general, rests on a type cognitive bias. They site multiple studies to substantiate their case. “These theories converge on suggesting that belief in supernatural agents such as gods and spirits, and related phenomena, emerge from a set of interrelated cognitive biases, such as perceptions of agency and mentalizing, mind-body dualism, and teleological intuitions. Equipped with these cognitive biases, human minds gravitate toward religious and religious-like beliefs and intuitions,” the authors state. See: Cognative biases explain religious belief, paranormal belief, and belief in lie's purpose.
   Why do people believe in that which they can't prove, on matters as important as the meaning and purpose of life? The short answer is that such “belief statements” are not so much statements of truth or observation as they are simple assertions. The person who makes the statement “wants” it to be true, “feels” that it is true, and by voicing it seeks agreement and reinforcement for their belief.
   The long answer is that human beings are complex biological organisms with an abstract-creating, imagination-driven, non-linear operating organ called a brain, an organ marked by host of unusual phenomenon, chief among them being consciousness itself and the capability for self reflection. To think is to engage in the formation of hypothetical scenarios, and to mix, match and link together related images in an almost infinite variety of patterns and scenes, then, if desired, to erase the whole thing in a millisecond only to be followed by another. When we aren't simply thinking, we are striving to manifest what we conceive. We build houses. We form relationships. We play. We create. We paint. We travel. And we invent. Nature, however, always seems to get the better of us in the end. So the art and practice of hoping and believing that there's more, goes on. We want there to be more, because for some of us the idea that there isn't is just intolerable. The idea that “everything has a purpose,” like other ideas which imply a belief in higher realities, exists because we die, because of the inability for we humans to manifest all that we can can imagine.
   In the article, “Does Everything Happen for a Reason?, authors Deepak Chopra and Jordan Flesh suggest that it is life's fundamental unpredictability which drives the impulse to devise stories “to explain ourselves to ourselves,” in addition to the “cloud of causes” that exists within each of us. “Inside this cloud are memories, conditioning, habit, reason, emotion, relationship, genes, and many hidden biological factors,” they write. “How this cloud comes to a decision is completely beyond the reach of scientific explanation.”
   Chopra and Flesh furthermore point to the feelings of synchronicity which people have, a feeling which provides a counter to the randomness of life. “People’s stories contain a mixture of order and chaos, so it may be that reality is completely orderly and meaningful, the only difference being how much orderliness we choose to bring into our lives. In other words, the reason that synchronicity smooths the way for one person and not for another depends upon them,” they write. “Everything happens for a reason if that’s how you perceive life; you allow the underlying meaning to express itself. You hold back chaos by trusting in orderliness. Trust isn’t sufficient, not by any means. It’s just one ingredient. The larger picture is about setting up a partnership between yourself and larger, invisible forces. They aren’t mystical forces but aspects of your own consciousness. The invisible forces include creativity, insight, intuition, intention, and attaining a state of mind where you are centered enough to know who you really are. The partnership between you and nature lies at the core of the world’s wisdom traditions.”
   Quantum physics, which points to a fundamental both/and state of uncertainty or superposition at the sub-atomic level; and tychism, proposed by Charles Sanders Pierce, which holds that a form of absolute chance or indeterminism is a real factor in the way the universe operates, also call into question the assumption that every aspect of life is imbued with purpose and meaning.

    For Further Reading