I’m currently reading “The Social Construction of Reality” by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann. In it, they argue that “reality is socially constructed” (p. vi).

I’ve heard this claim before, and it’s always confused me.  I can understand that beliefs are socially constructed, but reality? Let’s compare two kinds of things. First, there are things I think really exist out there somewhere – like planets and electrons and morality and God. Some of them I may be wrong about and some of them I may be right about. Second, there is whatever it is that is really out there. The latter is what I mean when I say “reality”. The first is just “the things that I personally think are real”. I can see how what I think of as being real can be socially constructed, but how can whatever is really real depend on how I think about them?

Whatever reality is, it can’t itself be merely a social construction.

Sometimes my students say that everyone has their own reality. By my definition of reality, that doesn’t make any sense. Reality is whatever it is that is “out there” – it doesn’t just belong to me, it belongs to everyone, whether they want it to or not. Everyone may well have their own understanding of reality, or their own beliefs about reality, though.

Of course, there is one part of reality that is definitely socially constructed, and that is things that are themselves social constructs. The laws of chess are a real thing, but they only exist as rules made up and agreed upon for the purpose of playing the game of chess. They are real but they are also social constructs. They are real social constructs. Still, because they are real, they are what they are, regardless of what you may think. If you think that en passant is part of the rules of chess, you are right. If someone else doesn’t, that doesn’t make the laws of chess different for him; it makes him wrong about the laws of chess.

Anyway, when I read the introduction to “The Social Construction of Reality”, all was made clear. It turns out that the definition of reality that Berger and Luckmann use is different than the definition I use. They define reality this way: “It will be enough, for our purposes, to define “reality” as a quality appertaining to phenomena that we recognize as having a being independent of our own volition (we cannot ‘wish them away’).” (p. vi.)

This sounds at first like what I was saying because it talks about phenomena that have a being independent of our own volition, that we cannot wish away. But it doesn’t say reality is those things. It says reality is the quality of the things that we recognize as having that independent being. In other words, there are things we think are real, and “reality” means the quality of realness that we think those things have.

I completely accept that that is socially constructed. It doesn’t mean the real stuff is socially constructed; it means the way I think about what I believe to be real is socially constructed.

I don’t think Berger and Luckmann are wrong about their definition – they get to define the term “reality” in a way makes sense within their discipline. It doesn’t make sense within sociology to try and figure out what is real in my sense. That’s beyond its reach.

They also don’t consider the more philosophical definition I use to be wrong. They explain in their introduction that philosophers will be concerned about what is really real, and are within their rights to ask that question. As sociologists, they aren’t addressing it.

So it’s just a matter of understanding that the same term means different things in sociology and in philosophy. The problem is that people claim that “reality is socially constructed” in too broad a sense. They think that sociology has shown that whatever is really out there is socially constructed. Berger and Luckmann understood that sociology hasn’t shown any such thing, nor could it, because that’s not what it investigates.

Here’s the book: Berger, Peter L.. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.

Does the universe care?

From a facebook conversation I just had …

Werner Herzog said:

The universe is monstrously indifferent to the presence of man.

My response:

Even from a strictly secular perspective, I think one could argue that the universe *does* care about man, through the humans in it that are a part of it. After all, if you’re going to ask what the universe cares about, the appropriate interpretation is to ask what those parts of the universe that care, care about. The fact that stars and atomic elements don’t care just means that where the universe cares it doesn’t use those parts to do so.


I know that’s sort of missing the point of the quote, but I still think it’s an interesting way to think about things.

The limits of science

Imagine a fantasy universe in which both natural and supernatural events take place. There is a set of scientific laws running in the universe, and most events take place as a direct consequence of these scientific laws. Yet at the same time, on rare occasions, there are events which take place without any natural law causing them at all. They happen magically.

Now let’s imagine a group of scientists in this universe who insist that there are no supernatural events. There are merely natural events we do not yet understand. Faced with a supernatural event, they will look for an explanation in terms of natural law.

Suppose that in this universe, Joe is walking to school one day and throws an apple seed on the ground. Suddenly, the seed sprouts and grows into an apple tree in the space of 10 seconds. Will this convince the scientists that supernatural events happen? Surely not.

There are two cases.

First, perhaps the scientists will manage to come up with an explanation for the rapid growth of the tree in terms of natural events. People are clever. We can come up with all sorts of explanations for how things might have happened, whether or not they really happened that way, and certainly there are ways to explain the tree. (For example, we can simply claim that Joe hallucinated or that he fabricated his story.) Obviously, having come up with such an explanation, they will refuse to believe that anything supernatural happened.

Second, the scientists will fail to come up with an explanation in terms of natural events. Will they say, “I guess there are events which cannot be explained naturally”? No, of course not. What they will say is, “We don’t know why this event occurred, but we know things like this don’t happen without a natural cause of some kind. One day, scientists will be able to explain this.”

That’s a little troubling. Apparently, if someone believed that all things are caused by natural law, but lived in a universe in which some supernatural events took place, he would never be able to be persuaded by evidence that he was wrong. Science helps us distinguish between two different naturalistic explanations, and decide which is better, but it seems incapable of even recognizing events that are not the result of natural laws.

There are three reasons that I first became interested in philosophy. One of the three is that I want to understand the meaning and limits of the scientific method. If there is a God and there are miracles (as I believe there are), then what is the proper role of science?

Warehouse 13, morality, and “personal feelings”

I was watching the first season of Warehouse 13 over Christmas break, and the following conversation occurred.

Benedict [interrogating Artie about his past errors]: And in attempting to save Joshua Donovan, you placed his sister, yet another civilian, in danger.

Artie: Yes, yes, in saving Joshua, I maybe put Claudia in dan- a little danger, but I promised her that if …

Benedict: You promised. You promised. Sounds as if personal feelings became involved in professional judgment. This has been an issue in the past.

Now, there are two ways to interpret this conversation. One is that Benedict says Artie shouldn’t have promised anything at all, but his emotional involvement led him to make the promise.

The second way, which I suspect is the one the writers intended, is that Benedict is saying that Artie should have been willing to break his promise. Benedict is assuming that a true professional would not consider himself bound to promises he has made. Worse, Benedict is assuming that to consider oneself bound to keep promises is a merely a matter of “personal feelings”.

Benedict is mixing up having moral convictions with having personal feelings, but the two are very different. Suppose Artie believes that lying is wrong. Does that mean that he always feels like telling the truth? Not at all. He might easily find himself in a situation where he feels very much like lying — to save his own reputation, perhaps. Yet his feelings are in conflict with his values, and so he tells the truth. The personal feelings, in such a case, are dominated by a desire to lie. His moral convictions are dominated by the belief that one should tell the truth.

Maybe Benedict read Hume. Hume said that reason alone never gives us any motive for doing anything. It merely tells us how to reach our goals. Deciding what the goals are — what is important to us — is a matter of desire, not reason. Thus moral convictions like “it is important to tell the truth” or “it is important to keep promises” arise from personal desires.

But this won’t do. Set aside the point that desires and feelings are not necessarily the same thing. Even then, there is another problem. If Hume is right, then not only is “keep your promises” a matter of personal feeling, but so is any other standard of behavior. That means that “keep civilians out of danger” or “follow procedures” or “act professionally” are also matters of personal feeling. Benedict says Artie put “personal feelings above professional judgment”, but if Hume is right then “professional judgment” is just one more set of personal feelings.

In that case, Benedict’s real complaint was just that Artie chose to prioritize feelings about promise-keeping above feelings about following procedure. The problem wasn’t following feelings vs. following professionalism, it was following feelings that were related to right and wrong vs. following feelings about obeying orders. It isn’t that Artie was too impetuous, but that he was principled in a way that went beyond merely obeying Warehouse rules.

I see this a lot in daily life. People who have strong moral principles are dismissed by others as being overly emotional or not sufficiently rational. But strong moral principles are an important part of rational behavior. The only question is whether those strong moral principles will involve things like honesty or things like sticking to procedure, whether they will involve our doing what is right or our doing what we are told.

Disagreement on controversial issues

I’ve been listening to a couple of philosophy podcasts through iTunes U. One was from a series of University of Alabama lectures. It was lecture #7, “Understanding Skepticism about Climate Change”, and it’s found here.

It asks the question: why are people’s view on climate change so closely correlated to their political views? Shouldn’t the science just decide the issue, regardless of what people believe politically?

He makes a couple of points that I think are very important.

First, almost no one except climate scientists really understands the topic well enough to make the decision based on direct scientific knowledge. We believe what we do because we trust scientists to tell us the truth about what they’ve found. Which scientists we trust affects what we believe the science says.

Second, when the climate change data is presented, it is usually attached to a bunch of statements that liberals agree with and conservatives disagree with. For example,

  • We are headed for environmental disaster. If it hadn’t been climate change, it would have been something else.
  • Climate change is one more example of rich first-world countries profiting off poor third-world countries. We need to stop that from happening.
  • Capitalism and consumerism are non-sustainable. We have to change to a way of life which lets go of the pursuit of more and more economic growth.
  • We need to let go of some national sovereignty and accept international authority in this issue.

When conservatives hear climate change connected with these four themes, they are going to be suspicious of the climate change data. It will look to them like an attempt to manipulate the data to push through a liberal agenda.

Third, given their initial suppositions, both sides are acting rationally when they are suspicious of the other side.

Fourth, the way to convince the other side is to work hard to decouple the scientific case from the liberal or conservative baggage that goes along with it. If you are liberal, don’t use climate change to press the four issues above. See if you can find someone who disagrees with those statements to make the case for you. There is no reason that climate change has to be solved by internationalization, or changing consumerism, or any of the other thematically liberal solutions.

Fifth — and the talk doesn’t make this point, but I believe it — once the political themes have been taken out of the equation, it may be possible to find compromises that respect the ideological commitments of both sides.

Now the speaker is liberal, and I’m pretty conservative, but I think his points are excellent. In fact, I think the same points apply to political controversies generally. Suppose conservatives and liberals disagree over factual issue X. Then I think the following are key to a discussion that actually makes progress.

  • Realize that people make decisions about X based on who they trust. It isn’t that one side is willing to look at the facts and the other isn’t. It’s that each side has its own experts telling it what the facts are.
  • Expect people on each side to be rational and honest. It’s just that liberals and conservatives have different presuppositions and trust different people.
  • Don’t use X to push a liberal/conservative agenda. That instantly makes you untrustworthy.
  • Help opponents find a way to believe X while remaining conservative/liberal. That’ll take creativity, but it gives people space to look at X without feeling like they’re being pushed into something else.

Philosophy conference

This weekend I’ll be attending the philosophy of religion conference at Purdue University.

I’m excited because it’s the first chance I’ve had for about 25 years to attend an academic conference like this. I’m sure most of what the speakers say will be way over my head, but I’m expecting to enjoy myself enormously.

The conference is in honor of Richard Swinburne. I don’t know much about him, but I know that, along with Alvin Plantinga and a few others, he has been part of the renewal of religious philosophy that has occurred in the last few decades.

Hannah Arendt

There’s a terrific (although slow) movie on NetFlix instant these days called Hannah Arendt. It’s a very accurate movie about a famous philosopher and a book she wrote about the “banality of evil”. She said that the Nazis weren’t necessarily evil because of being monsters, but by being ordinary people making ordinary but wrong choices for bad reasons. They weren’t evil because they were so extreme, but simply because they somehow didn’t allow themselves to ask whether what they were doing was wrong. There is something disturbing about a system that allows horrendous evil to be done by regular people. That should give us pause. Sometimes bureaucracies can be dangerous, and sometimes people can rationalize abhorrent evil as long as it lets them be part of something bigger.

An interesting article about the movie and the book is here.



One of my classes is looking at what the textbook calls the desire preference theory, which has me thinking again about the differences between desires and values.

Hume divided our psychological world up into two categories: beliefs, and desires. Ethical standards, he thought, are motivated by desires but directed largely by beliefs. For example, if I were against capital punishment, it might be because of a) a belief that capital punishment is murder coupled with b) a desire that leads me to oppose murder.

I can hold beliefs about my desires – I can believe that I am strongly opposed to capital punishment, for example, or in favor of it — but the beliefs are not the same as the desires. Sometimes I may even be wrong in my beliefs about my desires. I may say, “I have completely forgiven you; I want you to succeed”, and yet those who know me may realize that I am deceiving myself, that deep down I am still angry and want you to fail! (Similarly I can have desires about my beliefs: if I were afraid of making a speech, and wanted more confidence, I might say, “I wish I really believed I could do this.”)

One reason Hume makes the distinction is so that he can keep properly formed beliefs anchored in observable empirical evidence. I can verify empirically whether someone is guilty of a crime, and I can verify empirically what the consequences of executing him will be, but I cannot verify empirically whether we ought to put him to death. Decisions about what things are good or bad to do are not matters of observable fact. Therefore Hume assigns them to our ability to desire.

Some philosophers (for example, Gary Watson) argue that in addition to desires and beliefs we also have values. We can imagine a value system as a long list of numeric ratings for various actions or situations; our values are the ratings we assign to everything.

The point is that there can definitely be things I desire but do not value, as well as things that I value but do not desire. For example, an alcoholic struggling not to take another drink will desire the drink but assign it a very low value. Simultaneously he will value abstinence highly but not desire it.

Yet perhaps values are not beliefs either. At least, they cannot necessarily be empirically verified in the way that Hume wants well-formed beliefs to be.

I agree with the idea that we have values, distinct from beliefs and desires.

An interesting question is how much choice we have about our value system. Do we get to value whatever we want?