Few things affect our lives as much as the fact that we are citizens of one country rather than another.
Our topic this week is social realities. I must admit that when I first brought the nature of social reality up as a topic for an episode of Philosophy Talk, the non-philosophers on our team all went “huh?” That phrase obviously doesn’t mean much to the person on the street. But social realities are all around us. Think of cocktail parties, football games, bar mitzvahs, political rallies, and even nations. These are all social realities.
And in connection with this sort of thing both parts of that phrase “social reality” are worth focusing on. All the things I just mentioned are things that really and truly exist. They aren’t figments of anyone’s imagination; they’re real. Really real. Objectively real. But at the same time, they're all made up entities, at least in a sense. Cocktail parties exist only because a group of people get together and say “we're having a party now.” People just sort of decide that these things are going to exist. And so they do exist. Seems kind of like magic.
It isn’t really magic, but it is puzzling. At bottom, social realities are just creations of the human mind. Not individual human minds, but collections of human minds. You can’t all by your little lonesome create a social reality. Try it and you really will end up with something that’s just a figment of your own imagination. But put a bunch of people together, let them exercise their imaginations together; let them agree; and presto, you’ve got a new social reality.
What could, I suppose, make that sound a little like magic still is the fact that it takes at least two minds to make a social reality. If one mind can’t do it, why are two or more minds any better, you might ask. Well the answer is that social realities are, by their very natures, founded on agreement. If a bunch of humans agree to create a club, then there is a club. If a bunch of humans agree to form a nation, then there exists a nation. And although clubs and nations are nothing but products of human agreement, they're not figments of our imagination. To be sure they are products of our imaginations, but they’re real products, not mere figments. Once we agree that they exist, they are as objectively real as rocks and mountains.
Not only are things like clubs and nations real, they are really important. They have a huge impact on our lives. We’re immersed in a universe of ever changing social realities. And they play an immense role both in determining how we live and how well we live. Our earliest forbears foraged on the savannah and huddled in caves. Civilizations have risen and fallen and with them, ways of life have come and gone. Throughout these massive changes in the social world, the biological and physical worlds have changed too -- but not as radically, and mostly in ways that are more or less direct consequences of changes in the human social world.
So the social world affects not only the way humans relate to one another, but also how we interact with the rest of the biological and physical world. Science, for example, is really a complex social undertaking by which humans collectively seek to understand the physical, biological, and even the social world itself.
Now scientific understanding of the social world sounds like a good thing. But it also sounds a bit like sociology or anthropology or maybe social psychology. We’re philosophers. Why should we philosophers worry about the social world?
Well for one thing, we want to understand just how the social world arises out the natural world.
But wait a minute, you’re about to interject. You started out by saying that social realities are a creation of the human mind. Doesn’t that suggest that the social world doesn’t arise out of the natural world at all? In one sense yes; in one sense no. The sense in which the social world is not part of unaided nature is obvious. The social world depends entirely on us humans and not on the blind and impersonal forces of nature. But ultimately human beings are just parts of the natural world. So the power of the human mind to create social realities must have its roots in human psychology, which must ultimately have its roots in human biology, which must ultimately have its roots in physics.
This may sound a little reductionist. Afterall, I started out talking about the power of the human mind to create, almost out of nothing, all varieties of new social realities. And now I seem to be suggesting that it all comes down to the chemical processes of the brain. It’s definitely got to come from somewhere. It’s not just magic. And besides, even animals have some limited power to create social realities. It would certainly be good to understand just what equips the human mind to build social realities of such a wide variety and just how those human capacities evolv ed from lower level capacities of social animals,
There’s obviously a lot to think about here. Fortunately for us we had an excellent guest for this episode -- Berkeley’s own John Searle, author of Making the Social World.
I should say that this program was recorded in front of live audience at the Marsh Theater – this time in Berkeley, California. As a consequence, you won’t be able to join the conversation on air. But you can join it here.