Q & A
Q: Isn’t the nature of reality the province of philosophy and not of cognitive science? What can you hope to add to our understanding of this topic beyond the contributions of centuries of philosophers?
A: If the nature of reality has been settled, word has not yet reached the street, where claims that reality objectively exists (the scientific model, the truth will out) everywhere contend with claims that reality is constructed by people (perception is reality). While ways have been found to reconcile these two apparently contradictory perspectives in specific narrow domains, instances of them butting heads are plentiful in both popular culture and in academia. Because consciousness plays a central role in this question, it seems reasonable to ask whether cognitive science has something to contribute.
Q: You posit effects as the determinant of reality. What’s the precedent for that in philosophy?
A: There may be none. The term “reality” is used on this site as it is commonly used, which may or may not accord with traditional philosophical definitions. An examination of the common notions of objective and subjective reality, I contend, reveals effects to be their main differentiator. W.I. Thomas’s famous assertion that “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” gives an example. Our interest in the ontological status of possible states of the world is typically not idle and academic, but is vested in the implications of its cause-and-effect relationships (and principally, their implications for us).
Q: If the term “reality” encompasses all that exists, must there not be only one reality by definition?
A: Yes. Two Realities refers to objective and subjective reality as they are commonly understood – incommensurable and independent. As this site explains, alpha reality subsumes beta reality. Our mental representations (beliefs) are objectively existing patterns of neural activation (or their products), as are the physical and other effects in which they play a causal role. One of the goals of this project is to unify objective and subjective reality – to place both within the same system.
Q: Why not use the terms natural vs. social to distinguish kinds of effects and the realities they support, instead of alpha and beta? Social acts are after all a common subject of study.
A: The problem is that human beings are contained within the natural world and are subject to its cause-and-effect rules. The natural vs. social terminology encourages seeing social and cultural processes as self-contained autonomous systems, rather than as embedded within the natural world and interacting with its other forces. I chose the neutral terms alpha and beta to avoid that false dichotomy and to represent their hierarchical relationship.
Q: What you call beta effects all appear to have human actions as their causes. Why not just refer to them as the effects of human agency?
A: Because there is an important exception to that rule. While most of the effects of people’s mental representations (at least, for those of us who live in social systems) may result from the physical actions they motivate, merely believing something can have significant experiential and other effects for the believer, without requiring an intervening action. The placebo effect is an example.
Q: How can we refer to anything as objectively true (a fact of alpha reality) when by their very nature, any truth claims we make are only what we believe to be true, and cannot be positively confirmed to be anything beyond that (i.e., beyond “facts” of beta reality)?
A: It is correct to say that any truth claim we make about objective reality is only a representation of a reputed state within it, and is subject to the errors and limitations of representations. Two Realities accepts as a premise the correspondence theory of truth, and that we can approach objective truth through validation and convergence. If several people try to walk through the same wall and bounce off it, the most likely explanation is that a physical object exists at that location independent of their perception of it. So while concluding from this evidence that the wall objectively exists might technically be presumptuous, it suffices as a theoretical claim.
To say that we tend toward objective truth, however, is to say that we sometimes miss it, in part or in whole. There must be times when agreement between people about a state of the physical world is nothing more than intersubjectivity, and lacks (or corresponds poorly to) an objective referent.
Q: What do you mean when you say that the cause-and-effect rules of alpha reality are “passed through” to beta reality to the extent that our actions are based on veridical mental models?
A: We intend for and calculate our actions to have specific effects. We also assign value to objects and processes according to our estimates that they will cause positive effects or help us avoid or mitigate negative ones. Those judgments are based on our mental representations of the physical world’s cause-and-effect relationships – our beliefs. To the extent that our mental models are accurate, then, those objective (i.e., alpha) causal rules shape our behavior. We become their agent. When we use the physical world’s rules of causality as predicates for our actions, we extend their influence into the socially constructed world.
For example, suppose that I build a better mousetrap – one that leverages causal rules of chemistry and brain science to lure more mice to it, and rules of physics to grasp and kill them more effectively. I tout my product’s superiority in my advertisements for it. Consumers accept my claim as true, which allows me to command a premium for my mousetrap. That premium has its basis in alpha reality – in the fact that it catches mice at a higher rate, on average, than other traps. The cause-and-effect relationships that are responsible for its superior performance in the physical world are thus passed through to beta reality and become the basis for human valuation and action, and for the effects that flow from them – in short, for what we commonly call socially constructed reality.
Alternatively, suppose that I am successful in convincing consumers to pay a premium for my mousetrap but my claim of its superiority is unfounded in alpha reality – it does not cause the incremental physical effects I say it causes. It catches mice, but is no better than the average mousetrap. My customers’ mental representations of my mousetrap’s ability to cause physical effects are thus flawed – they overestimate its effectiveness. The beta effects of their beliefs, however, remain the same as if they accurately modeled the physical world: a higher price paid (which could result in considerable profits for me when aggregated across a large market); perhaps additionally acclaim, prestige, and other social rewards.
Note that the value represented by the price of my mousetrap (i.e., its value in equivalent human work) has some basis in alpha reality. If it catches mice as well as the average mousetrap, it’s worth the average mousetrap’s price. That portion of its beta effects were passed through from the world of physical causes and effects and shape our behavior by motivating us to expend enough of our labor (causing effects for other people) to earn that portion of the purchase price. It’s the effects that flow from the premium above the average mousetrap price that have no alpha basis and are purely contrived.
Q: In the preceding example, though, isn’t your deception vulnerable to being exposed, and the whole scheme to collapsing?
A: Yes, but the degree of vulnerability is related to the size of the alpha basis for a belief – whether our mental representation at least partially fits the objective phenomena it purports to model, or is way off. If it’s clear to the eye that my mousetrap has substandard parts and poor workmanship; if its pieces tend to fall off; if when placed in a mouse-infested spot it doesn’t catch a single one; I am unlikely to be successful in sustaining the desired mental representation of my mousetrap’s effectiveness in many people’s minds.
However, if the belief comes closer to hitting its mark; if the amount of error in its fit with objective facts is small enough that the mismatch can be written off to the vagaries of perception and interpretation that cause us all to build in allowances in our judgments and give truth claims the benefit of the doubt, the deception may well succeed. And this margin is not trivial – marketers routinely mine it for trillions of dollars by claiming nonexistent product benefits.
Page last updated Aug. 17, 2011