Tag Archives: social construction of reality

The Structure of Reality

Energy_Information_MeaningWhen you look out from where you are, what do you see? Three answers: energy, information, and meaning. Which one presents itself to you as the basic structure of reality depends on what you go looking for in the first place.

Nuclear physics reveals the basic structure of reality as vibrational currents of quantum energy – nothing so much ‘here’ or ‘there’ but a reality inherently chaotic and unstable, predictable only in terms of probability. These ‘strings’ flash in and out of existence and somehow constitute a matrix out of which subatomic matter crystallizes, only to dissolve back again into mystery. We need to be reminded that we’re not only talking about the ‘first three seconds’ of our present universe, way back in the very beginning. Even now, below the apparent foundation of things as we know them, existence is vibrant, indeterminate, and weird.

This is also the dimension of reality where your body lives, by the way. A living body is an organic system with the ability to surf the waves of energy twining and unraveling all around you. And let’s not forget that the physical makeup of your body is only apparently solid, with its fixed and stationary disposition concealing an oscillating undercurrent of genesis and extinction.

As an energy system, the ‘economy’ of your body is measured in calories to determine how much metabolic work is required in keeping you alive. The metabolism transpiring in your cells right now is how an organic system breaks apart the bonds of solid matter in order to acquire the energy locked inside, which is then used to power its living processes, or else bundled and stored away for later.

Now that we have moved our attention from the current of energy to its manifestation as the universe, let’s meditate briefly on its more or less solid and stable forms. A form, whether static or dynamic, is a channel of information. Its architecture provides a path (or channel) for energy to flow. The two types of channels are open and closed, where open channels allow energy to flow through and closed channels are energetic cul-de-sacs.

Open channels are dynamic and exemplified in all living systems, like your body. Conversely, closed channels are static: they keep their form constant until either more energy surges into them than they can hold and they burst apart, or their internal energy bonds weaken and they crumble into more stable states (a process known as entropy, or the Second Law of thermodynamics).

Whether dynamic or static, information channels are how energy takes shape. It might seem odd at first to speak of a plant or a rock as information, rather than as a “thing” or “object,” but that’s really all it is: a code of instructions for converting energy into form, and thus in-forming it. Your body, again, is an immensely complex system of bio-architecture produced by the conversion of energy into mass according to a deeper genetic code.

As a dynamic form, your body is not fixed and closed, but is rather in constant communication with the environment (what’s around you, in the air you breathe, in the food and water you ingest) which turns ‘on’ and ‘off’ certain genes. As a consequence, dynamic and open channels are more vulnerable to environmental assaults and mutations in their code than are rocks, for instance. But they are also capable of new adaptations and ‘self improvements’ that no rock has a chance at.

With a simple thought, such as anxious fixation on the prospect of failure and social embarrassment, your body switches ‘on’ the genes that synthesize stress hormones, and when these are released into your bloodstream major changes will ensue in the function and structure of your cells and organs. Unchecked, this process can lead to hypertension, mitochondrial exhaustion, inflammation, gastric ulcers, and even cancer. Of course, let’s not forget that you can produce a very different result by taking a more realistic and responsible approach to that imagined future event.

This last step, as we consider what’s going on inside your mind as you look out on reality, shifts our perspective up one more level, to the construction of meaning. What something means is not merely a matter of how it channels energy into form. Information is only data (codes, mathematical ratios, signals and instructions) while meaning adds interpretation. Human beings are unique (though not alone) in their ability to construct a mental model of reality that assigns it identity, value, and significance. Whereas information consists in a pattern of data, meaning must be extracted from, or ‘read into’, what’s there in the code. This is why we say that meaning is “constructed,” and that the world of human beings is a social construction.

We need to spend a little more time with this idea, if only because it represents a rather radical departure from our common sense view of things. We are accustomed to thinking of meaning as something we find, discover, or search for in reality. But what we actually find is nothing but facts, energy flowing into form and manifesting as the universe we can sense and measure. If we find meaning, it’s because someone else (or we ourselves, previously) put it there. (And this is one of the reasons why it’s been so important in our religions to conceive of the universe as a creation of an intentional being, whose meaning is now already there for us to search out and understand.)

The theory of constructivism holds that meaning is made in our minds and then used as an interpretive lens for making sense of reality. We perceive or imagine patterns of information, and then we sift, spin, and embellish those patterns in an effort to make them mean something. A radical version of constructivism (to which I happen to subscribe) regards the reality outside our minds as inherently meaningless, as simply ‘what is’. The meaning (or meanings) we project onto it serves as a sacred canopy (Peter Berger) inside of which we find orientation and purpose for our lives.

Our constructions of meaning fall into two general types, adaptive or absolute, corresponding to the channels of information deeper in the structure of reality. Adaptive meaning refers to mental models that are regularly updated for maximal relevance. As reality changes and our human situation shifts accordingly, our interpretation of how it all works together, where it’s going, and what it means needs to keep up. An adaptive worldview is responsive and flexible, capable of adjusting to the dynamic nature of reality.

Absolute constructions of meaning, on the other hand, are by definition unchanging, which is to say unresponsive to reality and inflexible in their interpretation. Indeed, absolute mental models protect themselves by insisting that they are not interpretations at all, but straightforward presentations of the way things really are. Characteristically they get to this point by a longer history of falling out of touch with reality, losing their ability to adapt, and eventually becoming so set in a script of cross-referencing self-validation that no criticism from outside is even allowed. (And again we can find ready examples in religion today, where once-relevant narrative constructions of reality, or myths, have become a system of frozen metaphysical ‘truths’ beyond all doubt.)

We are at a point in history when absolute constructions of meaning are threatening global security and our human future. This is certainly true in the case of sectarian religion. But even more devastating is the worldview associated with rampant consumerism and its utter lack of regard for the living systems that make up the consilient biosphere of our planet. The same grasping-and-gulping, tossing-and-trashing mode of life that was sustained on the promise of breakthrough technology and unlimited resources has been exposed for the fallacy it really was.

Yet the construction of meaning that inspired our consumer ambitions is still driving much of our behavior today. If it were truly adaptive, the consumeristic worldview and its myth of salvation through material prosperity would be willing to acknowledge the catastrophic effect it is having on our planet, our communities, our health and well-being, and proceed to update itself so as to be more grounded, realistic, and ethically responsible.

But we don’t have to keep our reflections safely preoccupied on the level of social criticism. Just consider how much of your personal behavior (choices, actions, and reactions) is driven and justified by a construction of meaning out of touch with reality. How much of what you obsess over, chase after, and hold onto today as an adult is working out ambitions that were constructed in early childhood when your security and self-esteem were developmentally appropriate concerns? Your needs weren’t fulfilled then, and you’re still trying to satisfy them now. There’s your example of an absolute construction of meaning.

So, when you look out from where you are, what do you see? Three answers: energy, information, and meaning. Which one presents itself to you as the basic structure of reality depends on what you go looking for in the first place.

What are you looking for?


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Human Being

If language had developed along a slightly different track, in addition to speaking of human beings we might today have acquired the habit of referring to “dog beings” and “tree beings,” even “rock beings” and “cup beings.” This fascinating word, being, is mistakenly regarded as a noun when it’s really more a verb: be-ing, the act or process of existing.

Being is the dynamic and particular demonstration of existence, manifesting here as human, there as tree, and as a cup on the table (table being) before me. It’s interesting to ponder why language has retained this formal reference to ourselves as human beings – as the manifestation of existence in human form.

If we had come to regard this wonderful diversity of beings more explicitly in our language, would we today have a different shared understanding of and appreciation for the way all things are grounded, connected and involved in this one magnificent act of being called the universe? As cohabitants of this universal order, would our tribal values, personal choices, and individual lifestyles have taken a different course, landing us in a very different cultural space from where we are today?

Culture itself is a complex system of uniquely human creativity whereby the organic energy (life) of our animal nature (body) is harnessed, redirected, and converted into the social currency of identity (ego), collective meaning, and shared purpose. The organic energy that animates your body is not your personal property, but merely a cresting wave of life as it has emerged on this planet.

In its peculiar form, this animal manifestation of life has a deep heritage of instincts. You can think of them as impulses, reflexes and drives that have evolved over many millions of years to protect and promote the vital urgencies of life as it rises in the organism you are. This “urgency” represents the place where your life is absolutely dependent on the support and resources of the natural environment.

The part of your brain responsible for regulating the syndrome of urgencies that is your biological life does its business far below your conscious awareness or direction. It lives in the unconscious present.

If life itself is not your personal property, the tribe works on you to cultivate an identity and mindset – equipped with a distinctive vocabulary of “I, me, mine” – that regards this body as “my body, belonging to me.” As you occupy this standpoint in reality, it makes sense to speak in personal terms. Although your personality is rooted in genetics and a deeper animal temperament, its fuller development is a social construction.

Your personal preferences, interests, values and concerns are unsurprisingly similar to those of other tribal members. As the tribe instructs your language and language structures thought, your worldview and way of life will tend to be compatible with membership. It feels as “natural” as using your dominant hand for daily tasks. Your tribe’s way of leaning into reality was instructed into you from an early age; it just seems “right.”

Human societies tend to favor “insiders” over “outsiders” as bearers of value and meaning. This insider preference not only translates into a politics of “us” and (versus) “them” on the personal level, but it has also forced a somewhat pathological separation between identity and embodiment, ego and body, technical control and the natural order, human beings and “only” dogs, trees, and rocks.

Most religions construe salvation as a rescue mission – getting ego out of the body and safely to heaven. But from the standpoint of the soul, this only magnifies the real problem, which is that we are divided within ourselves. Of course, “I” (ego) want to live without pain, without stress, and without the burden of mortality … forever and ever.

When ego (the social construct of  personal identity) took on this role of a lifetime as impersonator of the soul, the wholeness that is the true meaning of salvation (salvus = to heal, make whole) and the higher quest of our spiritual life was forfeited, or at least postponed. As long as the principal goal of religion continues to be rescuing “me” from my body and this sinful world, the soul’s quest will be frustrated.

I am suggesting that the evolutionary goal of “true religion” is actually the opposite of what it has become in conventional religion. Rather than accomplishing a rescue mission – whether it is permanent (everlasting) or only temporary (as in the hopelessly confusing orthodox Christian notion of resurrection, where the already-saved ego is reunited with its body for final judgment) – salvation for the soul is about coming back to the body.

In a kind of “reincarnation,” the once-split and internally conflicted human being is reconciled and made whole – in this life.

A human being is a distinct expression or manifestation of being-itself. Over there, being is expressing as a dog, as a tree, and as a cup on this table. Each manifestation of being (human, dog, tree, etc.) carries this deeper ground into the nature, form, properties and attributes of its unique expression. From the standpoint of ego, where personal identity (as “me”) is a socially supported preoccupation, this talk of a ground of being threatens to dissolve away what makes me special.

And yet, the experience of absolute release to the present mystery of reality is a celebrated moment of realization for mystics everywhere. This is where you understand intuitively (not by logical argument) that “it’s not about me.” There is an intention to your existence, an evolutionary aim in what you are, which is to become fully human.

As long as captain ego is gripping down on “me and mine,” this otherwise very natural flow of human energy will be cut short of fulfillment. Let’s not be surprised any longer that frustration and stress, anxiety and depression, conflict and violence are destroying our health, international community, and the biosphere of this planet. We should expect more of the same if nothing changes within ourselves.

So come back to the present moment. Your body has been here all along. Breathe in. Breathe out. Reach in to the ground and touch the source. Reach out to the universe and be at home.

You are a human being, so be fully human.

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Posted by on September 26, 2013 in The Creative Life


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At the Threshold

Anderson: “As we become aware of the social construction of reality – consciously, publicly aware – the boundary erodes between the kind of fiction we call art or literature and the kind of fiction we call reality. History becomes another kind of storytelling, personal and social life becomes another kind of drama.”

Reality is a present mystery – ineffable and inconceivable, yet here-and-now. Always here and now.

“World” is our name for the mental construct that human beings spin like a web over the unnameable mystery. There are many, many worlds – as many as there are individual humans on this planet, busy making up the stories that provide the orientation and context they need to live meaningful lives.

The term “social construction of reality” can be misleading, in the way it suggests that reality is a product of social engineering. Early sociologists employed this term for its obvious impact, exposing the fact that our minds are storytellers and spin-masters, and not passive blank slates or transcendent observers as modernists had believed.

In the interest of clarity, I prefer the term “world” as a reference to this ongoing construction project of the mind. It’s not reality that is socially constructed, but our worlds – our representations of reality, our mental models of it, the myths and theories we make up. Granted, a world is a social construction of reality, but reality itself is not constructed. It is a present mystery, the real presence of mystery, always within our reach yet forever beyond our grasp. It IS – just that. What it is can only be represented, and the moment representation begins worlds come into being.

Postmodernism began with disillusionment, as people slowly (or suddenly) began to realize that our worlds belong to us as their creators. In earlier times, when by military conquest, commercial trade, or missionary outreach a dominant culture would come in contact with a different worldview and way of life, the strange stories and rituals of “those people” were generally dismissed as superstition. The invaders were in possession of the truth. Their myths were not bizarre fictions but the revealed world of god.

Their world was reality; there was no mystery, only meaning.

As a way of appreciating this evolutionary process of disillusionment, we can distinguish between premodern, modern and postmodern stages of cultural development. Rather than as measurable periods of historical time, I’m using these terms to distinguish different states of mind, in this slow realization of our role as meaning-makers and world creators.

In premodern times, human societies existed in relative isolation. Worlds, as constructions of reality, were like canopies of meaning elevated overhead and staked to the ground at the geographical boundaries of tribal territory. Individuals would be born, spend their lifetime, and go to be with the ancestors – all inside and underneath this single coherent world-canopy.

The modern stage began as the edges of this cultural canopy were lifted and attached to poles, allowing a world to be carried or stretched over a larger territory. This was the age of explorers, conquistadors, traders and missionaries, who encountered “those barbarians” and proceeded to exterminate, colonize, or convert them to the truth.

There are still many today who remain fully “illusioned” or entranced in this modern mindset. As Joseph Campbell put it, according to this mindset “myths are other people’s religion.” We alone have the truth. No world-and-reality distinction here. Our world is reality, the way things really are.

Postmodernism, then, is a mindset where this distinction starts to become evident. But more than that, it is accepted as something more than just a transitory feature of our lives. In other words, it’s not just a “philosophical fashion” that characterizes our times, but rather constitutes a transforming breakthrough in our self-understanding as a species.

Postmodernists are not necessarily better or more advanced than modernists, but their disillusionment does tend to promote a humbler attitude in how they hold their worlds against the backdrop of reality. This further translates into greater tolerance, respect, curiosity and understanding when it comes to their regard for the worlds of other people.

The modernist conviction that once motivated true believers to become martyrs or murderers in defense of their truth just doesn’t have the same entrancing power anymore – at least for the waking minority. An appreciation of your world as an illusion, albeit (we hope) a meaningful one, helps take off the pressure of having to fight for validation and supremacy.

Life becomes more freely creative, more interesting, and more fun.

But then there’s that part about taking responsibility for the worlds we create. It’s not all fun and games. After all, meaning is a basic psychological need of human beings. It provides orientation and context in our quest for security, identity and significance. Without meaning a person will fall into a hole of meaninglessness called depression. Down in that hole, nothing seems to matter – because it doesn’t.

Disillusionment – also known as awakening, realization and enlightenment – can be exhilarating at first, but then the “dis” starts to pull at the seams of your illusion and stretch the fibers of your sacred canopy. Not knowing where, or even whether, this unraveling will stop, there is an overwhelming temptation to roll over and go back to sleep.

This explains why the phenomenon of fundamentalism is correlated to the rise of postmodernism. It is its shadow, the dark counterpart of fear, dogmatism and violence that strives to pull us back under the covers. Fundamentalists profess their myths as the supreme truth, even though the primary subject as portrayed in the narratives has never been experienced by anyone.

This is a dangerous time in our history as a species. As we stand together on the cusp of creative change, chances are greater than ever that some of us will resort to desperate measures in their attempt to “save the truth” of their world and way of life. Such convictions hold our higher intelligence captive (as a convict) to deep insecurities that must be acknowledged and transcended.

Just know that there are many more like you – even now waking to the light. Find them. For your sake and theirs, find them.


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