Since human beings are frequently stupid . . .

As I read I am always on the lookout for another great book. I found in this way Pierre Boudrieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practiceand Susan Oyama’s The Ontogeny of Information among others.  Now I am reading another one, The Social Construction of Reality by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, touted as one of the 5 most important books on sociology last century (and there were many).  I am reading it slowly both to enjoy the ideas and to understand them as best I can.  Early on I kept saying to myself, “Is this how sociologists think about things?” because their level of analysis is so different from what I am used to (mostly psychological, biological and neuroscientific).  Social Construction is quite abstract and analyzes how we humans as a society form institutional knowledge and cultural forms almost on a step-by-step basis, beginning with dyad, then a triad, and then a larger group thereby creating and institutionalizing human culture.  It seems quite austere in its analytical and logical approach and I imagine required quite an effort to write so and supercede in the main the messiness of human biology and psychology.  This is a really good book.

Berger and Luckmann  write with insight albeit from their different perspective on many topics I have pondered. I particularly appreciated their arrival at understanding and stating oh so clearly that all of human culture is a human (and to me that means biological and organic) creation: “The origins of a symbolic universe have their roots in the constitution of man. If man in society is a world-constructor, this is made possible by his constitutionally given world-openness, which already implies the conflict between order and chaos.  Human existence is, ab initio, an ongoing externalization.  As man externalizes himself, he constructs the world intowhich he externalizes himself.  In the process of externalization, he projects his own meanings into reality.  Symbolic universes, which proclaim that allreality is humanly meaningful and call upon the entirecosmos to signify the validity of human existence, constitute the farthest reaches of this projection.”

Well said, eh?.  My perspective is that we humans have an umvelt, i.e., an inner world, filled with self generated information much more than perceptual or even remembered information, and that this umvelt has come to be dominated by culturally transmitted information, i.e., what Berger and Luckmann call a symbolic universe.  To say that we externalize this umvelt and that we project our meanings into a self-, or better, selves-created reality is, I think, quite apt.

Berger and Luckmann also discuss how we reify these creations.  A good word that, ‘reify’, meaning to make something abstract real and solid.  One example of this comes from psychology where researchers might pose a construct and then assume it is real; any number of examples exist like Freud’s ego, a vague and ill-used concept that many think is a real thing.  Another example comes from physics where theorists derive some mathematical objects that may describe reality but are not in fact manifest in reality, like quarks.  Berger and Luckmann write that we humans create and populate symbolic universes and then forgetting that they are our own selves-creations, assume that they are real, i.e., we reify our our arbitrary forms and ideas into something thought to be actual, to truly exist independently of our minds.

I see a good example of this on my drive to town.  A sign advertising a church program says that “The universe follows god’s will”, but I think it is more accurate and less reified to reverse the terms, “God follows the universe’s ‘will’.”  As a way of illustrating this, a recent wind storm blew the church sign down.  Was the universe following god’s will or vice versa, was god’s will following or mirroring in some people’s minds the universe’s particular action?  Attribution is best done, I think, carefully and without reification.

I am also thinking a good deal these days about the frailty of cultural transmission (like how is it that so many Americans accept our President’s character as healthy and his actions as just and true?  We certainly lost something somewhere in the transmission of common moral and ethical sense).  Berger and Luckmann discuss a couple of reasons for this.   One is that socialization is rarely complete.  Well, yes, as I posted recently, I rejected the socially transmitted value specifying that beatniks are bad and racial discrimination is okay (see post 5/21/19).  The glory here is that each generation generally accepts what the previous one passes on but specifically examines certain aspects that seem out of kilter with current understood realities (remembering that these realities are selves-created).  We might call these critical moments (a metaphorical reification?) inflection points, and these come about for many reasons large and small, and especially through contact with people who think differently.

Another reason is that cultural transmissions sometimes involve information of some complexity, subtlety and nuance, and this necessitates that the transmission is simplified, because, as Berger and Luckmann write, “since human beings are frequently stupid, institutional meanings tend to become simplified in the process of transmission”.  Some may not be able to understand the deeper lessons learned by our ancestors because of some intellectual or emotional lack (perhaps, say, for example, they have grown mentally lazy due to anti-intellectual attitudes or they spend too much time and energy watching sports or reality shows, or they have become too entitled to think they need to work at thinking, just for some examples). Maybe they think that their world is so different and that they are so special that old wisdom, e.g., like the truth and value of character, is garbage.  This is important because, say Berger and Luckmann, cultural progress is institutional change (institutions in a very general sense) and that is not irreversible.  So yes, fascism can return and yes, that is bad, and no, we are not powerless here because this is our own selves-creation, but we do have to pay attention to some basic principles and act and think working at intellectual integrity (remember the words Sam sings in Casablanca, “the fundamental things apply as time goes by”).  Travel on.

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