Imagination and reality, and knowing the difference
Consider the gang problem in Bermuda or the financial situation in which Bermuda’s fiscal near future has been downgraded. Are these more like figments of our imagination or in some way do they actually exist? If they exist, in what way are they actual? Neither of them are physical substances that you can see, hear, touch, smell, taste or weigh. Some would say that they are socially constructed, meaning that through the interaction of people in relationships of various kinds, carrying out roles in society and talking about shared situations, that people have created these things. Others would say that since these problems have a life of their own, since they “push back” as it were and do not conform to our thinking about them, that they actually exist even though we cannot see them and so forth. They are like the wind; you can’t see the wind, but you can see what it does when it moves against things that you can see.The differences in these two ways of considering such problems are called social constructionism and critical realism.According to the Wikipedia:“A major focus of social constructionism is to uncover the ways in which individuals and groups participate in the construction of their perceived social reality. It involves looking at the ways social phenomena are created, institutionalised, known, and made into tradition by humans. The social construction of reality is an ongoing, dynamic process that is (and must be) reproduced by people acting on their interpretations and their knowledge of it. Because social constructs as facets of reality and objects of knowledge are not ‘given’ by nature, they must be constantly maintained and re-affirmed in order to persist. This process also introduces the possibility of change: what ‘justice’ is and what it means shifts from one generation to the next.”Likewise, critical realism is defined as follows:“In the philosophy of perception, critical realism is the theory that some of our sense-data (for example, those of primary qualities) can and do accurately represent external objects, properties, and events, while other of our sense-data (for example, those of secondary qualities and perceptual illusions) do not accurately represent any external objects, properties, and events. Put simply, critical realism highlights a mind-dependent aspect of the world that reaches to understand (and comes to understanding of) the mind independent world. It is related to the concept of critical naturalism.“Critical naturalism argues that the transcendental realist model of science is equally applicable to both the physical and the human worlds. However, when we study the human world we are studying something fundamentally different from the physical world and must therefore adapt our strategy to studying it. Critical naturalism therefore prescribes social scientific method which seeks to identify the mechanisms producing social events, but with a recognition that these are in a much greater state of flux than those of the physical world (as human structures change much more readily than those of, say, a leaf). In particular, we must understand that human agency is made possible by social structures that themselves require the reproduction of certain actions/pre-conditions. Further, the individuals that inhabit these social structures are capable of consciously reflecting upon, and changing, the actions that produce them — a practice that is in part facilitated by social scientific research.”Put more plainly, the gang problem and the fiscal condition of Bermuda would be things that actually exist outside of anyone’s mind — outside of our creative abilities to fabricate them. According to the critical realist formulations of Margaret Archer in England, writing in the field of sociology, it is the activities of human beings, individual agents, working as they do that give rise to the social structures of any given group, society, or country. Those social structures, in turn, exert and influence over the individuals who must adjust, make choices, change or remain stagnate in the face of challenges, etc. The individuals actually exist, and they must for any kind of social structure to emerge. The social structure actually exists and must for any kind of process in which people live with one another successfully. Without others we would not survive.So, the gangs actually exist, and they are what they are because of the social conditions in Bermuda, but the social conditions in Bermuda are what they are because of the actions of people serving in various roles in our society. Change the way people function, and you will change the social structures that will then change the gang situation. The same thing can be said about our financial situation.Now, what about God? Is God just a social construction? Have people made up this thing called God, because there was some kind of need to do so as they huddled around the fire in a cave? Social constructionism would say that the concept of God is something that people in groups have created, or at best there is no way of knowing because the socially constructed idea of God is all we have to go on. However, the critical realist would say that God either exists or does not exist independently of the mind’s capacity to think of such a Being.One of the nicest descriptions of critical realism in this realm of the spirit was provided by the New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright (1992), when he said, “I propose a form of critical realism. This is a way of describing the process of ‘knowing’ that acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence ‘realism’), while fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiralling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known (hence ‘critical’). Thus, we know some things about the world in which we live, and we continually refine our knowledge of that world. Our knowledge of the world is not an exhaustive knowledge; it is an investigative knowledge.That applies to the issue of one’s relationship with God — the way it is in one’s knowledge of God. It is never exhausted so that a person comes to the end of it all and knows all there is to know about God, whether or not God exists, what God is like, and what God is in the process of doing. But, it is an unnecessary dead-end to assume people cannot know anything about God or know God personally and experientially. While it is a matter of faith for any person as to whether or not God exists, IF God exists, God certainly does so outside of our minds’ abilities to construct Him. He is not a figment of our imagination.