Saturday, January 30, 2010

Why your Reality is not "the" Reality

by Alexandre Couto de Andrade

"Man is the measure of all things: of things which are, that they are, and of things which are not, that they are not"


The creation of culture usually follows certain patterns. First of all, culture is a collective phenomenon. In other words, an isolated individual cannot create culture because it is the product of interactions between people.

When a particular human group is confronted with a specific problem for the first time, it is likely that many of its members will propose different solutions for it. Several trials and errors may be necessary until satisfactory ways of solving the problem are found. As time goes on, one of these solutions will eventually be considered the best one, and will be therefore adopted by the group whenever the problem occurs again. After all, if an effective solution is found, it makes no sense to look for a different solution every time the same problem happens. It would unnecessarily consume precious energy and time. This is neither economically efficient nor effective on evolutionary grounds.

The “problem”, in this case, could be choosing a new leader for the group, determining the adequate punishments for violations of their rules, finding out the best way to fish, to build their houses or to store their food, etc. Even when the process does not involve debate or collective decisions, the mechanism is analogous. If one individual discovers or develops a good method for doing a certain task, for example, his/her procedures can be added to the group's knowledge repertoire to be imitated afterwards. Solutions developed by other groups can be adopted as well.

As time passes, the repetition of the above mentioned procedures and practices results in the creation of habits and conduct patterns that can be adopted whenever necessary. Thus, among all the possible solutions for a problem, just one or a few become institutionalized. Institutionalization is what happens when an habit becomes part of the group's “ways of doing things”, as a result of the shared history of its individuals. The set of all these institutions is what we call a society.

One of the chief advantages of institutionalization is that it allows us to foresee the consequences of our acts, including how the other members of our group will react to them. It eases tension relief, and therefore greatly improves the success of human interactions. If we play by the rules, our actions are not reason for astonishment, fear, disgust or suspicion. We know what to do and what to expect in return. Analogously, we know what to expect from the other members of the group in similar situations too. It is reasonable to fear no danger or menace.

For the first generation of members of a society, their rules and customs (institutions) are creations of their own. Nevertheless, when a second generation comes on the scene, things change. They will find a pre-existing set of rules and customs. From the second generation onwards, the individuals of the group perceive the institutionalized world is an objective reality. For him/her, this reality seems to be perennial. It was there before he/she was born, and it will be there after his/her death. That is “the way things are done”, the natural order of things. A time comes when the group simply seems to forget the human authorship of the social world.

Of course, the institutionalization as well as the legitimation of the institutions are often neither consensual nor peaceful. In the following extract from a letter to Christophe de Beaumont, although referring specifically to some religion disputes, Rousseau illustrates very well how institutionalization not rarely takes place (you will find my free translation to English below the French text):

Nous langues sont l'ouvrage des hommes, & les hommes sont menteurs.

Comme il n' y a point de vérité si clairement énoncée où l'on ne puisse

trouver quelque chicane à faire, il n' y a point de si grossier mensonge

qu'on ne puisse étayer de quelque fausse raison.

Supposons qu' un particulier vienne à minuit nous crier qu' il est jour

; on se moquera de lui : mais laissez à ce particulier le tems & le

moyen de se faire une secte ; tôt ou tard ses partisans viendront à bout

de vous prouver qu' il disoit vrai. Car enfin, diront-ils, quand il a

prononcé qu' il étoit jour, il étoit jour en quelque lieu de la terre;

rien n' est plus certain. D' autres, ayant établi qu' il y a toujours

dans l' air quelques particules de lumiere, soutiendront qu' en un autre

sens encore, il est très-vrai qu' il est jour la nuit. Pourvu que des gens subtils s' en mêlent, bientôt on vous fera voir le soleil en

plein minuit. Tout le monde ne se rendra pas à cette évidence. Il y aura

des débats, qui dégénéreront, selon l' usage, en guerres & en cruautés.

Les uns voudront des explications, les autres n' en voudront point ; l'

un voudra prendre la proposition au figuré, l' autre au propre. (...) Chacun

taxera de mauvaise foi le parti contraire (...). On finira par se battre, se massacrer ; les flots de sang

couleront de toutes parts : & si la nouvelle secte est enfin

victorieuse, il restera démontré qu' il est jour la nuit. C' est

à-peu-près l' histoire de toutes les querelles de Religion.

La plupart des cultes nouveaux s' établissent par le fanatisme, & se

maintiennent par l' hypocrisie (...). L'enthousiasme & le délire ne raisonnent pas

;tant qu'ils durent, tout passe, & l' on marchande peu sur les dogmes (...).

Mais quoi qu' on fasse, le fanatisme est un état de crise qui ne peut

durer toujours. (...) C' est alors qu' en revenant sur soi-même, on est tout surpris de

se voir enchaîné par tant d' absurdités. Cependant le culte est réglé,

les formes sont prescrites, les loix sont établies, les transgresseurs sont punis. Ira-t-on protester seul contre tout cela, recuser les

Loix de son pays, & renier la Religion de son pere ? Qui l'oserait ? ”

[“Our languages are works of men, and men are liars.

As well as there is no truth that can be so clearly enunciated that no one is able to captiously object to it, there is no lie so coarse that cannot be defended on false grounds.

Suppose that someone tries to convince us that it is daytime at midnight; people will make fun of him: but give him some time and the necessary means to create a sect; sooner or later his supporters will prove that he was right. After all, they will tell us, when he told that it was daytime, it was indeed daytime somewhere else on Earth; nothing could be more certain. Others will state that there are always some particles of light in the air. Others will also argue that in still another sense, it is daytime at night. Let some subtle people intervene, and they will make you see the sun at night. There will be debates that will degenarate into wars and cruelties, as usual.

Some will want explanations. Others will need none; Some will want a figurative interpretation of the proposition. Others will want a literal interpretation. (...) Each will accuse the other contending party of bad faith (...). They will finally battle and slaughter each other; rivers of blood will flow from all sides: and if the new sect is eventually victorious, it will be demonstrated that it is daytime at night. This is more or less the history of all the religious quarrels.

The majority of the the new cults is established by fanaticism and sustained by hypocrisy (...). Enthusiasm and delirium do not think; while they last, everything is accepted, and the dogmas are seldom disputed (...).

Fanaticism cannot however last forever. (...) It is then that, back to themselves, people are surprised by finding themselves shackled by so many absurdities. Nevertheless, the cult is already set, forms are prescribed, the laws are established, the transgressors are punished. Who is going to protest against all that, to reject the laws of his country, and disavow the religion of his/her parents? Who will dare?”]

Although dissent and disobedience tend to be limited by institutionalization, in any human society they are far from nonexistent. For several reasons (individual genetic predisposition, political and economic interests, external cultural influences, obsolescence of old practices, etc.), the institutions will always face opposition. The more complex is the society, the more difficult it is to manage dissent. When it comes to law, for example, there will be endless arguments between those who adopt naturalist and positivist approaches.

In spite of the fact that dissent is generally fundamental to progress and innovation, it can be a menace to social world. If there is nothing to validate or safeguard an institution, it can be easily undermined. For this reason, societies usually create mechanisms to protect and/or legitimate their institutions. The nature of these mechanisms depends on the society, as well as on the values and interests involved. They may make use of coercion, propaganda, education, among many other means. Sometimes a kind of “negative legitimation” is also used. It is called “nihilation” (a term derived from the Latin word for “nothing”: nihil). It consists in denying the legitimacy or even the existence of something that is considered external, inconvenient or prejudicial to the society. In ethnic conflicts, for example, this could mean denying the enemy's human condition.

The legitimation of the institutions of any human society depends strongly on the efficacy of a process called “socialization”. No individual is born member of a certain society, but has a predisposition to “learn” how to become one. This learning processes is what is known as “socialization”, and is initially conducted by those people who are close to the child (his/her significant persons). Based on their conceptions of reality, life experiences, values, beliefs, and the roles they play in their society, they will (very often inadvertently) strongly influence the child's perception of the world. This influence is specially critical for two main reasons: first, as long as the significant persons are intimate with the child, the relationship between them involves a high emotional load. Secondly, the early childhood is the most critical period for the formation of human personality. In this period, more than in any other, the human brain is physically sculpted by experience (in interaction with the genome). Therefore, what happens during this period will influence the person for the rest of her/his life.

As times passes, the child becomes increasingly able to discern the behavioral and conduct patterns of his/her significant persons. From a certain moment onwards, the child becomes capable of making generalizations, concluding that that is the way “people” behave. Since then, she/he identifies her/himself not only with some close persons, but with a society.

It is however in a later socialization phase, known as “secondary socialization” (in contrast with the early phase called “primary socialization”), that the role the individual will play in his society is really defined. In this phase, the role played by the significant persons is largely undertaken by others, such as teachers and social acquaintances. It is in this phase that the individual will learn most of what is necessary to play her/his role in the society (a fundamental part of identity construction).

As a society becomes more and more complex, work division is increasingly needed to handle its progressively elaborate and numerous institutions. To each individual, or group of individuals, specific tasks and roles are then assigned, based on several factors, such as social class, gender, religion, skills, etc. Depending on the nature of these roles and tasks, he/she will need to master a certain fraction the society's knowledge repertoire, adopting specific vocabulary, modes of conduct, behavior and standard practices.

The above mentioned “roles” and “tasks” can be any kind of assigned or assumed social activity or (expected) behavior. It may consist on exercising a profession, practicing a religion, being a father/mother, being part of an interest group, or anything else that helps defining the person's identity, i.e., that tells him/her apart from the others (the same person can thus play different roles simultaneously). It is what defines her/him as a member of a specific group but, at the same time, helps making the individual unique. As unique as are one's life history and genome (“nurture” and “nature”). As a result, the person will have a unique conception of reality as well. This conception of reality is called “subjective reality” because it depends on each person's idiosyncrasies. It is not how the world “really” is ("objective reality"), but how one perceives it. It varies not only from one person to the other, but also from one moment to another for the same person. And, as long as everything in the world is constantly changing (including the person him/herself), not even the disparity between one's subjective reality and the objective reality is a constant. It is at the same time a perfect illustration of what Heraclitus called the “universal dynamism” of reality, and of the Protagorean “man-measure” statement.

When it comes to human groups instead of individuals, the mechanism is similar. Groups composed by people who play similar roles in the society will adopt particular rituals, rules, doctrines, knowledge repertoire, standards and esoteric vocabulary. The main difference resides in the fact that the phenomenon is now in the domain of the psychology of groups. But just like individuals, each group will constitute specific conceptions of reality, and act in accordance to their particular sub-universes of meaning.

Deliberately or not, certain groups prevent outsiders from getting access to their repertoire of knowledge. One way of doing so is through the employment of esoteric vocabulary, incomprehensible for the outsiders. Professional jargons are perhaps the best example of this sort of barriers. Admission tests, initiation rituals, guilds, discrimination, are some other possible obstacles. The ever increasing amount of accumulated knowledge poses another important obstacle, because getting access to many groups' repertoire of knowledge requires specialization. The volume of information produced everyday is so overwhelming that even specialists are frequently incapable of knowing what is new in their own fields, let alone what happens in other areas. This generates a bizarre situation in which, in spite of everything that humankind already knows, the vast majority of us remain chained to false beliefs and delusion. Not even the most well informed people are immune to that.

An excellent example of this kind of situation is the Uri Geller case. In the 1970’s, Geller became worldwide famous for his “paranormal” demonstrations. Geller was a fraud. However, before he was finally exposed even intelligent and competent professionals who analysed his performances were deceived by his trickery. Two scientists of the renowned Stanford Research Institute, for example, published a paper in Nature confirming Geller’s powers. The problem was that most of those people who were deceived by Geller, although intelligent and/or qualified professionals, did not have the specific knowledge and skills necessary to expose him. Geller was a magician (not even a good one). It took another magician to expose him (watch the video below). Due to the fragmentation of the knowledge repertoire, intelligence, scholarship or erudition are simply not enough to tell apart what is real from what is not.

The division of work that was supposed to make it easier to handle the overwhelming and ever growing amount of knowledge, is frequently also a very serious obstacle to the perception of objective reality. Some specialists, in particular, seem to forget that this division of knowledge is artificial. They astonishingly often disregard the relations between their areas of knowledge and other areas. This creates distorted conceptions of reality. There are economists that believe that all the complexity of human relations can be explained by economic science. If one watches the documentary “Architektur des Untergangs”, he/she will be induced to believe that Nazism was an aesthetic movement. If one reads “Pathologies of Power”, he/she will “learn” that the biggest aspiration a human being has is the satisfaction of being a healthy animal (the author cannot understand why so many Cubans try to escape to the USA. After all, Cuba has – according to him – an excellent public heath system!!). In this context, we should not be surprised if we found a dentist who believed that the human condition can be explained in odontological terms.

Concerning socialization, the social distribution of knowledge is nevertheless not the only impediment to the knowledge of objective reality. Due to socialization (specially primary socialization), most people just DO NOT WANT TO KNOW anything that is opposed to their beliefs (genetics is involved as well). They are sure that what their institutions or ancestors take/took for granted is true. Myths become “ancient wisdom”.

Planet Earth has nearly 6 billion inhabitants. Each one of them lives however in a planet of her/his own. In some of these planets, spirits "live" among people. In others, evolution never happened. Some are inhabited by aliens. So many people. So many worlds.


1) concerning institutionalization, the “first generation” argument is only illustrative. The creation of a society is a continuous process which has no end and no clearly defined starting point. The institutions are not all created simultaneously. They are not perennial. They are not immutable. Nevertheless, this argument helps understanding the mechanisms of institutionalization;

2) regarding the possibility of knowing the “objective reality”, for every practical purposes we can (although in a limited way) create satisfactory models to understand and interact with the universe that surrounds us. In other words, most of the objects and phenomena our senses detect have a real existence. Although our senses are not totally reliable, science provides us with tools that help us to understand what our limitations are, and not rarely overcome them.

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  1. Wow. Very thought-provoking. As a result, I predict very few comments.

  2. This is a very interesting article. Very insightful analysis of human interaction in the search for knowledge and meaning. Ultimately we seem to find ourselves in a constant dialogue/struggle with the "one" and the "many" of our reality. I think the Christian idea of the Trinity is a potential rubric to consider answers to this dilemma. In it we have a model of "perichoresis" (mutual indwelling) that could be an example of how our distinct specialties enhance one another. The problem, however, of how those specialties can communicate in the context of phenomenal knowledge growth within each specialty is well noted.