December 07, 2016

Deconstructing 'The Social Construction of Reality'

Dr. Dennis Hiebert, Professor of Sociology
Deconstructing ‘The Social Construction of Reality’:
A philosophical critique of Dr. Dennis Hiebert's Provf Talk

By Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Providence University College


0. Overview
  1. Introduction
  2.  Dr. Hiebert's talk “What does ‘The Social Construction of Reality’ mean?” (video)
  3.  Transcript of Dr. Hiebert’s talk with VDB’s critique/ comments (in red)
  4.  VDB's final comments
  5.  Suggested resources

1. Introduction

The sociological thesis known as Social Construction of Reality (SCR) interests me philosophically. In what follows, I attempt to understand it with the help of sociologist Dennis Hiebert (who is also my colleague and department chair).

Dr. Hiebert sets out the SCR thesis in his popular short lecture “What does ‘The Social Construction of Reality’ mean?” (Provf Talk, November 20, 2014).  As Dr. Hiebert points out, he provides in this lecture “only a brief description of the social construction of reality, not an evaluation or critique of it.” He adds: “For that [i.e., the evaluation/ critique] you should take Social Science and Christianity, pardon the plug.” The plug is pardoned and welcomed. Unfortunately, I—and probably many others—cannot take Dr. Hiebert's course, which no doubt is a deeply interesting course. Nevertheless, I wish to think philosophically about SCR as presented in Dr. Hiebert's lecture. I wish to improve my own understanding of SCR as presented in Dr. Hiebert's talk, and perhaps my doing so will be helpful to others. Below, then, is a link to Dr. Hiebert’s Provf Talk followed by a transcript of the lecture with my comments/ criticisms (in red font) interspersed within the text.

Here is an overview of my commentary and criticisms. I argue that the SCR thesis presented by Dr. Hiebert assumes three important philosophical positions which deserve scrutiny. First, SCR assumes a philosophical meta-perspective, i.e., a view of reality that somehow stands above influences of culture and is able to penetrate/ see through those influences to discern truth via appeals to evidence and reasoning—in this case the truth of the social construction of reality. But if such a perspective is available to proponents of SCR, it is also available to critics of SCR, so SCR critics can also make appeals to evidence and reasoning to discern how well the SCR meta-perspective fares. This is significant and leads to my second and third criticisms. Second, SCR assumes moral anti-realism, the view in ethics that denies the existence of a real moral fabric that’s part and parcel of the physical world. But this view is rejected by philosophers (and even an important sociologist) who hold to moral realism. Third, SCR assumes a form of fideism, a religious epistemological view that evidence and reason cannot be used to discern God, i.e., that knowledge of God is only subjectively accessible/ wholly personal. But this fideistic view is not held by all thinkers, either.

Please know that I am a philosopher and I am seeking to understand philosophically sociology's SCR thesis as it is presented by Dr. Hiebert; I am not criticizing Dr. Hiebert. Dr. Hiebert may actually agree with my philosophical criticisms, at least on some points. I set out my comments and criticisms in the spirit of academic inquiry coupled with the hope of promoting careful truth-seeking about philosophical assumptions.

Warning: My comments/ criticisms could be mistaken—so please read with care! Mistaken or not, my comments/ criticisms should serve a positive function: they bring attention to some controversial philosophical assumptions that seem to lurk at the heart of SCR. Viewers—especially students—should be aware of these assumption so they do not accept them uncritically.


2. Dr. Hiebert’s talk “What does ‘The Social Construction of Reality’ mean?” (video)

YouTube video (15 minutes): “What does ‘The Social Construction of Reality’ mean?” by Dennis Hiebert (Providence University College, November 20, 2014):



3. Transcript of Dr. Hiebert’s talk with VDB’s critique/ comments (in red)

The Social Construction of Reality is a core concept in sociology, one that unnerves Christians probably more than any other. What does it mean? I am a Christian and the Social Construction of Reality [SCR] doesn't "unnerve" me. Rather, I get philosophically curious when a thesis such as SCR is connected to and presented with some unnoticed but controversial philosophical assumptions.

The SCR refers to the process whereby people continuously create, through their actions and interactions, a shared [social] reality that is experienced as objectively factual and subjectively meaningful. [It’s important to add “social” in front of “reality,” to ensure that we're thinking about socially-constructed reality, not all of reality.]

In other words, the social world is not simply given, it is not natural, it is not revealed, it is not even fully determined.  It's made, and made up, by people.  It is transmitted by people.  What we have not learned from our own senses, our own intuition, our own reason, we have learned directly from other human beings. ü  So 95% of what we know we have simply accepted from what other people have told us. Yes, much of what we know we have accepted from others (though I don't know the exact percentage). Nevertheless, I think it’s important to keep in mind that much of what we know isn’t merely or “simply” accepted. Much of what we have learned from others is thought about carefully and can be checked or tested for its truth. E.g., my parents taught me Ottawa is in Ontario and I've been able to go to Ontario and visit Ottawa. E.g., my middle school teacher taught me that water freezes at 0 degrees Centigrade and I've been able to set my freezer accordingly. I have accepted many other bits of knowledge from teachers and authors whom I've determined to be credible sources of information. So this knowledge is not all merely “made up"; it's often backed up by checkable arguments and data which show it’s true/ probably true. Even what our own senses and intuition and reason tell us is highly shaped by what other people have told us, for example, what counts as reason. What our senses, intuition, and reason tell us is sometimes shaped by what others have told us. But not always. It’s good to keep in mind that to know that this shaping (to some extent) occurs requires that we have some unshaped knowledge to discern that the shaping occurs. (To know that we're mistaken requires knowing—accurate knowing—that sometimes/ often we're not mistaken.) Yes, even what counts as reason may be shaped by what others have told us. But what others have told us may be true and can be checked. For example, consider the deductively valid argument form modus ponens (if R then W, R, therefore W; if it rains then the streets are wet, it is raining, therefore the streets are wet). We can be told that if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true too. Yet, we can also check this to discern—know—whether it’s true. It turns out that we can see (via rational insight/ intuition) that if it's true that “if R then W” (if it's raining then the streets are wet) and if it's true that “R” (it's raining) then it's also true that “W” (the streets are wet). There are many logically valid forms and other forms of reason/ argument that we can learn—and discern—to be ways of thinking that show us actual (true) relationships between ideas and between propositions that describe the world accurately.

The social world could therefore be otherwise, it could be altered. Yes, sure. Nevertheless, via the careful use of our senses, intuition, and reason, we can alter the social world for better or for worse. Significantly, when the altering goes in a truth-denying direction we can return it to a truth-affirming direction. How? Via promoting a culture of careful, critical thinking that is truth-conducive. Our social world can reflect what is real and good, and we can work to ensure this by using reason carefully. The social reality in which humans live is not inevitable, it is not natural.  It can be scary to ponder the possibility that our [social] reality isn't real [better: it's scary if our social reality doesn't take into account and accurately reflect what is real in the world], but it also can be liberating [i.e., if our social world is not reflective of what's actually true/ really good, it's liberating that we can make it reflective of what’s actually true/ really good: e.g., emancipation of slaves, promotion of women’s rights, truth-telling in courts of justice, etc.]. We can, literally, change the [social] world. It can be deconstructed and reconstructed, as it has been continuously throughout history. Social reformers such as William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, etc. reconstruct the social world by having it reflect truths about real human worth/ dignity, whereas the likes of Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, etc. reconstruct the social world by having it reflect falsehoods about real human worth/ dignity.

Aside: We can know the external world (albeit fallibly and non-exhaustively), contrary to what some skeptics tell us. For a critique of skepticism concerning our knowledge of the external world, see my Reasonable skepticism about radical skepticism, Christian Research Journal, Vol. 31, No. 5 (Sept/ Oct 2008): 30-38. See too my Apologia column Skepticism concerning colours? The Carillon, December 16, 2010.

The sociological question is not What is real? Right, this is a philosophical question (metaphysics). Nor even How do we know what is real? Right, this is a philosophical question (epistemology). The sociological question is How does anything come to be [socially] accepted as real?  Right, there are social influences at work. But it should be noted—and this is important—that we can discern whether those social influences are correct in persuading us to socially accept X as real or not. Enter the doing of philosophy: critical thinking about metaphysics and epistemology (and ethics). Whichever social way one’s beliefs are gotten or accepted (sociology), they can be tested for truth by careful examination and comparing those beliefs with what we know about reality (philosophy, etc.). My society might teach me that black people (or Jews or unborn children) are not human beings, but a careful examination of evidence shows they are in fact human beings.

Note: To dismiss a belief as being false because of its origins is to commit the Genetic Fallacy. For further understanding of the Genetic Fallacy, see my Apologia column The Genetic Fallacy, The Carillon, April 7, 2011.

And there are three phases to the process.

Notice that the SCR proponent is setting out these phases as if they are true or accurately reflect what's real. Notice, too, that in setting out these phases to the process as if they are true or accurately reflective of the real, the SCR proponent shows that he/she assumes we can know social reality apparently independently of social influence or we can know social reality because our social influence is to some extent truth-conducive: i.e., we have socially constructed tools which enable us to discern what's true—e.g., tools such as science, disciplines of careful truth-seeking thinking (logic)—and which allow us to communicate our findings accurately. In other words, the assumption here (made by the SCR proponent) is that reason and evidence are legitimate as a way to discern/ know the world accurately plus communicate this knowledge. This is an important assumption (and, it seems to me, a true assumption). We should keep this in mind in case we are tempted to think that all we know is socially influenced in such a way that knowledge of truth is lost. Significantly, this also allows us to carefully examine/ challenge the truth of the SCR view by using careful truth-seeking reasoning.

Three phases to the process:

1. Externalization

= the process whereby individuals, by their own human activity, create their social worlds [they put what is inside of them out there into social space]

   physical environment = nature             - given to humans
   social environment = culture                - created by humans*

               material culture = tools and technologies e.g., axes, microchips
               non-material culture = abstract order e.g., beliefs, values*, norms, etc.


* The philosophical question remains whether this creation/ construction accurately reflects the real. A distinction is needed between real value (i.e., value that's objectively embedded/ given in the actual fabric of reality and not created by humans) and valuing (i.e., human/ social invention of value or subjective appreciation of value, which may or may not correspond to the actual moral fabric of the world external to the human mind). As we'll see later, the SCR view assumes there is no real value independent of human construction, which is to take an anti-realist position without arguing for that position. It’s important to note that moral realists (such as me and others) think this assumption is false. Whether one agrees with moral realists or not, it should be noticed that the SCR view makes an assumption with which others—reasonable thinkers—disagree. Not noticing this assumption may be misleading to those persons not thinking critically (and is unfair to moral realists).

Rivers are nature. Roads are material culture. [Slide: Rivers can be enculturated.] But humans can even turn nature into material culture by the meanings we attach to nature, by the uses we make of nature. For example, we can turn rivers into playgrounds, into transportation routes, into disposal dumps, into political boundaries, into sources of hydro power, into sacred spaces, etc.  ü

So our total environment consists of nature and culture, and it can be broken down into the following facts:

Note: The notion of "nature" used here (see below) assumes a material/ physical nature that's denuded of a moral dimension/ reality that's part of its fabric. This assumption may be true or it may be false. The SCR view assumes it's true. Whether one agrees or disagrees, it's important to realize that this assumption is playing a huge role in the SCR presentation.  I think the assumption is false, as do other thinkers, i.e., moral realists. (Interestingly, the respected sociologist Christian Smith in his book What Is a Person? seems to think it's false, too. More on this later.)  The audience—especially the student audience—should be alerted to the role of these important assumptions in the SCR's view.

Note: To claim that "our total environment consists of nature and culture, and it can be broken down into the following facts" presumes a meta-perspective, i.e., a view that somehow stands above (penetrates/ sees through) the influences of culture and is able to discern truth.  Is this a case of having one's philosophical/ epistemological cake and eating it too? If the SCR proponent can do it, so can SCR critics. How to arbitrate? Answer: Careful, truth-seeking reasoning.

See my numbered notes (below) which make reference to the following chart.

Three phases of the process:

Our total environment consists of:

   ! ß nature à ! ß ------------------------- culture --------------------------- à !

        Natural                   Technological    Institutional   Normative
         facts1                       facts                  facts               facts1

   e.g.  mountains                         hammers           money                       freedom3
      muskrats                    highways          marriage2       fulfillment


               Constitute increasing levels of dependency
                                                                           abstraction
                                                                                       meaningfulness4
                                                                                                   imposed order5

1. This chart assumes there is no moral fabric/ reality to nature. SCR proponents are setting out a moral anti-realist assumption as if it is true. (Is this a vestige of an Enlightenment/ modernist/ positivist assumption?)
2. If the Christian God exists, then marriage would not be a mere institutional fact. It would be a fact of reality, originally in God's mind, more or less accurately reflected in culture(s).
3. Metaphysical libertarian freedom (i.e., the view that humans are free agents/ have free will), if true, is a fact/ reality about human nature, not a mere normative fact disconnected from nature. If this notion of freedom is what the SCR proponent has in mind here, the SCR proponent assumes this metaphysical view away.
4. Actual meaningfulness depends on the real. We can invent meaning, of course. But whether our inventions correspond with the meaningfulness or lack thereof in the real world depends on the real world, not us.
5. Insofar as the imposed (constructed) order reflects the real accurately, it's true. Again, the SCR view assumes that there is no real moral order in the fabric of nature.


Note that these facts constitute increasing levels of dependency. Some facts are dependent on humans and others are not dependent on humans. Mountains are not dependent on humans at all. Mountains would exist even if humans did not exist. But hammers would not exist if humans did not. Hammers are entirely dependent. Not entirely. Their substance (wood, metal) is independent of humans.  

They consist of increasing levels of abstraction. Some facts are less physical and more abstract. A hammer has more physicality than money. ü  Some forms of money don't have any physicality at all, it's just debt, just in theory. Money can correspond to many things but a hammer is always only just a hammer. Normative facts have absolutely no physicality whatsoever.  This is true only if there is no moral fabric that is part and parcel (supervenes on/ is an inherent property of) the physical universe. The SCR view again assumes this particular moral view—an anti-realist view—which I and other philosophers think is false or at least controversial. On a moral realist view, some physical facts and values are one.  (Theologically, the moral realist view seems to fit with the biblical God saying that the creation is good and very good when humans are on the scene.)

Consider the passage below, from the book What is a person? (U of Chicago Press, 2010, pp. 442-444) written by highly-respected U Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith. Smith's work (what he calls “critical realist personalism”) supports the moral realist view that human beings truly have objective moral value (a.k.a. human dignity) and this is part of their physical reality (i.e., fact and value are one) and we know this—so it's not a mere social construction.

What is it that most powerfully justifies moral commitments to things such as human rights, freedom of speech, the abolition of slavery, religious liberty, universal education, due process, racial nondiscrimination, the prohibition of torture and genocide, outrage against rape, the freedom of conscience, protections against starvation, and care for refugees? Not a utilitarian calculation. Not a social contract. Not the interests of the wealthy and powerful. Not the findings of naturalistic, positivistic, empiricist social science. What justifies these moral commitments is the recognition of the natural dignity of persons, which is ontologically real, analytically irreducible, and phenomenologically apparent. In naming the real about humans in this way we continue to pull back together fact and value, the is and the ought….

In all of this, we must acknowledge that not all people or cultures or philosophies have recognized or understood the fact of human dignity or often treated ordinary people with dignity. Quite the contrary. History is replete with failures to understand, affirm, and respect human dignity. Treating humans as possessing the dignity that is rightfully theirs by virtue of the ontology of personhood may be the exception, not the rule in human history…. How can we affirm real, objective, universal human dignity in the face of such massive misrecognition and violation of it? Does this not suggest that the idea of human dignity is actually a recent cultural invention of dubious ontology and relative value? No, I think not. Nothing whatsoever in a realist theory requires that people recognize and understand something in order for it truly to exist. Bacteria and germs existed and wreaked havoc on human bodies for most of history without anyone realizing they were real—it was not until the nineteenth century that the germ theory of disease became widely known and accepted. The objectively real moral fact that slavery is a categorical evil was likewise not widely appreciated throughout most of human history, yet in the United States people's common erroneous moral understanding of slavery until the nineteenth century did not mean that slavery was not evil. It was evil—whether or not anyone realized it. Human dignity does not become real 'for us' simply because we start believing in it, any more than our heliocentric solar system became real when people started believing in it. It always was true. What needed to happen was simply for people to conform their hitherto mistaken minds to what was already true about the real. This was the case with Copernican astronomy. This is the case with human dignity. … [T]here are certain 'institutional facts' that are real social things and made so precisely by people believing in them, through 'social construction'—things like money, representative government, and sports. But human dignity is not an institutional fact. Dignity is, in Searle's terms, a 'brute fact' of ontological reality that is a characteristic and ineliminable property of emergent personhood. Dignity is rooted in the nature of things personal [i.e., physical human beings which ground/ constitute the capacities of personal], not in ideas or discourse. So the fact that not all people or cultures or philosophies have recognized or understood or respected human dignity does not touch the question of its existence.

This nevertheless compels us to recognize the historically conditioned nature of humanity's awareness of its own dignity. The recognition of human dignity has not been a historical constant. Various people, cultures, and philosophies have at different times throughout history explicitly articulated the reality of personal dignity. But the clear understanding of the inalienable, universal nature of human personal dignity that emerged in the twentieth century—especially in the wake of Nazi Germany and World War II—and that is now expressed in many national constitutions, the Charter of the United Nations, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was the outcome of long historical developments shaped by a variety of different religious, ethical, philosophical, and cultural traditions unfolding over time. Like most of human knowledge about people and the world, knowledge of human dignity has also been historically dynamic and progressive. People today can say more about dignity that really is true than they used to be able to say—just like we can say more now about physics, medicine, ocean life, the brain, the moral status of child labor, and the origins of the cosmos than we could centuries ago.

When it comes to human beings, then, moral reality and physical reality are not separate—they are ontologically/ factually one. SCR assumes this is not true.

There's also an increasing level of meaningfulness. As things become more dependent on us for their existence, they become more meaningful to us. Freedom is more meaningful to us than a hammer, more meaningful to us than money.  Distinction is needed between meaningful per se and meaningful for us. Meaning may be embedded in the nature of the universe (which is so, if Christianity is true).

And finally there is an imposed order. As things become more dependent, abstract, and meaningful, we impose more order on them. Marriage is more ordered than hammers are.  We impose order even where there is none, then create an entire meaning system around that order. Note: If Christianity is true, then the order of marriage is real, i.e., originally an idea in God's Mind, and our constructions are true insofar as they accurately reflect that idea.  For example, skin colour is a continuum. We impose the order of race, and create racism. Note that because meaning is functionally dependent, abstract, and ordered, it is contingent and precarious, it can be changed, because it's not attached to anything, it's a whim of history. Note: The key is to discern whether our constructed meaning systems accurately reflect the real (the meaning of the real). To hold, as the SCR proponent apparently does, that meaning is “not attached to anything” and “a whim of history” is to embrace a relativity of meaning as dependent upon human whim/ subjectivity. It seems to me (and others), however, that meaning—true meaning—is attached to the real, which makes our understanding of the meaning true (or false, if our understanding is completely off).

Perhaps these comments from a couple of highly regarded Christian philosophers will be helpful (or at least show that not all thinkers agree with SCR's view of meaning):

John Warwick Montgomery: “Facts are not made of wax, capable of infinite molding from the pressure of interpretive worldviews.... Facts ultimately arbitrate interpretations [meanings], not the reverse....”

William Lane Craig: “Texts have limits to the meanings which can be seen in them. No one employs postmodern hermeneutics in reading the instructions on a medicine bottle.”

Aside: Yes, human skin colour is a continuum. But is the notion of race a wholly imposed order, a whim, and not attached to anything? There is a continuum between the edge of a forest and a field. Are then the notions of forest and field wholly imposed orders, whims, and not attached to anything? Is my status as a white Caucasian a wholly imposed order, and is my colleague Morgan Mulenga's status as Black a wholly imposed order—both wholly whimsical, not attached to anything? Or, like a forest and a field, are there actual characteristics that allow us to distinguish conceptually and accurately between the distinctive realities of our existence, even though there are ambiguous areas due to fuzzy conceptual borders?


Why are people willing to kill or die for meanings, such as religion? Why? Because it does not come to us as contingent or precarious or unstable. No, it's not because of it not coming to us as contingent, precarious, or unstable; it depends on the meaning content. Some religions have meaning contents that say we should kill, say, infidels. Others say we should love our enemies. Plus there are abuses of otherwise good teachings to satisfy the interests of the abusers.  It is presented to us as a hard reality. I don't think it's not the presentation as hard reality that's the primary problem, though it's a problem when false religions/ false interpretations are in question. The primary problem has to do with the alleged truth content of the hard reality and the manipulation of that content for reasons of power-mongering, hate, etc.


Through the process of objectivation precarious meaning must be made to appear stable, unquestionable, taken for granted. Externalizations, that which we humans externalize, are made into objective reality that has consequences for us because it acts back on us, it coerces its creators.

Note (again): In the analysis continued below, the SCR proponent continues to presume a meta-perspective, i.e., a view that somehow stands above (penetrates/ sees through) the influences of culture and is able to discern truth.

Objectivation is…

Three phases of the process:

1. Externalization

2. Objectivation

= the process whereby individuals apprehend everyday life as an ordered, prearranged reality that imposes itself upon, but is seemingly independent of human beings

How's that possible? Well, that's a result of four things.

Three phases of the process:

Four ways of objectivation:

a) institutionalization
   - occurs when meaningful behaviours become routinized and habitual

b) historicity
   - as generations come and go, the institutional world "thickens" and "hardens"

c) legitimation
   - meaning is given a cognitive and moral [either/or] basis that will explain and justify it


And the most powerful form of legitimation, one of many kinds, but probably the most powerful form, is religion.  To say that God says this legitimates it stronger than any other legitimation that we have. ü

Three phases of the process:

Religiona as one kind of legitimation:

i) religion places the source of meaning beyond the human realm [as a given eternal truth to be discovered, not just an optional belief that was created]
ii) religion defines deviance as evil, not just alternative [it allows us to threaten deviants with eternal damnation]
iii) religion enables people to feel an ultimate sense of righteousnessb [it dissolves all our doubts about the correctness of our behaviours and our feelingsc]
iv) religion integrates all of life [by making sense of everythingd]

a. Not all religions are equal regarding their evidence. The issue is whether the transcendent meaning is justified in terms of evidence. SCR assumes that all “religion” doesn't make contact with our world and so a religion's truth content isn't discernible in terms of the careful use of reason and evidence. This doesn't hold for Christianity which has evidence for Jesus' life, death, and resurrection as a public ground for discerning its truth.

b. Religions differ on this. Christianity says we don't have righteousness.

c. Not in my (and no doubt others’) experience.

d. In my experience of Christianity, I haven't made sense of everything. In view of the preponderance of evidence pointing to the truth of Christianity, I'm willing to acknowledge its truth even though I don't have all the answers. This seems to be true of many other thoughtful Christians I know. In other words, point iv seems off when it comes to Christian faith.

Fourthly, the fourth form of objectivation is language. Meaning becomes embedded in language.

If so, and if this embeddedness is a detriment to knowledge of truth, then does this analysis (the SCR proponent's analysis), which uses language, suffer from this embeddedness too? To the extent such embeddedness occurs and is problematic, to that extent this analysis is problematic and thus is weakened and should not be taken seriously. In my view, however, language when used carefully can be truth-conducive (i.e., can communicate knowledge of truths, albeit fallibly and non-exhaustively). This allows for arbitrating conflicting views by careful appeals to evidence and reasoning.

Note (again): In the analysis continued below, the SCR proponent continues to presume a meta-perspective, i.e., a view that somehow stands above (penetrates/ sees through) the influences of culture and is able to discern truth. If the SCR proponent can do this, so can the rest of us. The question now is: Are the SCR proponent's arguments and assumptions reasonable to hold? I think they suffer from some unnoticed but serious philosophical problems (which can be discerned via the careful use of reason).


Three phases of the process:

Four ways of objectivation:

a) institutionalization
   - occurs when meaningful behaviours become routinized and habitual

b) historicity
   - as generations come and go, the institutional world "thickens" and "hardens"

c) legitimation
   - meaning is given a cognitive and moral [either/or] basis that will explain and justify it

d) language
   - meaning becomes embedded in language


Language exists outside each of us, therefore it's an objective social entity.


Three phases of the process:

1. Externalization

2. Objectivation

3. Internalization
   = the process whereby individuals learn the legitimations of the institutional order



Third phase: internalization—the process whereby individuals learn the legitimations of the institutional order. We carry culture around in our heads. We let culture define who we are. And so reality is socially constructed.  Here the word “reality” is ambiguous (i.e., has more than one distinct meaning): (1) social, (2) physical, (3) moral, (4) spiritual, (5) abstract.


Here's a summary:


Three phases of the process:

Summary: "Society is a human product (externalization); society is an objective reality (objectivation); and (humans are) a social product (internalization)." Note: humans are also a product of their essential nature.

Reification
= is the apprehension of the products of human activity as if they were something other than human products—such as facts of nature, results of cosmic laws, or manifestation of divine will. Reification implies that (humans are) capable of forgetting (their) own authorship of the human world, and further that the dialectic between (humans) the producers and (their) products is lost to consciousness." This sociological analysis is such a product, too. The SCR view seems not to notice the anti-realist assumptions it brings into this analysis/ sociological product.

                           Berger and Luckman, The Social Construction of Reality, p. 69 and 89



In other words, the humanly made world is explained in terms that deny its human production. This applies to this analysis, too.



Three types of realities based on its reality's verifiability, objective vs subjective, and its dependency on the human mind, independent or dependent.

Types of realities:

                                       Relation to human mind
                           Independent                 Dependent

    Objective        Natural realities                        Social realities
Verifiability
   Subjective        Other realities/"God"    Personal realities


Significantly, the above chart assumes that the reality of God is only subjectively verifiable/ checkable, i.e., not objectively verifiable as the stuff of the physical world is verifiable/ checkable.  But why can't we verify/ check the existence of God by examining God's effects via evidence and good reasoning therefrom (as we do with unseen physical stuff such as magnetic forces, atomic particles, tectonic plates)? What about the kalam cosmological argument, the contingency argument, design arguments, moral argument, etc.? Also, why can't we verify/ check the historical reality of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (as we do with other past events that we haven't seen)?  SCR apparently takes some sort of fideistic view that evidence and reason cannot be used to discern God via nature and God's revelation in Christ via history. But this is a controversial view and is not a view held by all Christian believers. It's important for viewers—especially students—to realize that SCR is assuming this view and presenting it as if it's the view that Christians hold when it's not.

a) natural realities are not dependent on human mental activities [independent and objective, all the physical facts of the universe exists in reality independent of human activity, and they enable us to form some knowledge of reality beyond our social constructions. We learn that we cannot fly, at least not without the machines that enable us to fly] If God exists, then God is like a “natural” reality in the sense of being not dependent on us. Also, God would not be merely subjectively verifiable (see my comments immediately above and immediately below).

b) personal realities are beliefs held by persons that are real only to those who hold them [are dependent and subjective; beliefs that are held by persons that are real to those who hold them but that have not been socially institutionalized. In other words, they are mentally dependent, because their existence depends on human cognitions, but they're also subjective, because they only exist in the minds of those who hold them, such as someone's belief that they can actually fly.

c) social realities are beliefs that are shared and have been institutionalized [are dependent and objective, beliefs that are shared and have been institutionalized via externalization, objectivation, and internalization. All of culture, non-material culture, material culture, are social realities.

d) other realities cannot be known, can only be postulated [independent of the human mind and subjective, cannot be known; they can be postulated. But as soon as they are postulated they immediately become mind dependent and social. So, concepts of the supernatural or the super personal or the super social, concepts of God – all human knowledge is conceptually mediated and influenced by socio-cultural factors. Some “postulations” are better than others, depending on the evidence and the quality of reasoning from that evidence, a quality of reasoning that can be more or less mind dependent in getting at and reflecting the real (we use critical thinking to cut through excessive bias/ intrusive subjectivity). Also, we can infer the existence of X on the basis of evidences for X. We do this by making an inference to the best explanation. Also, to know/ judge that conceptual mediation and influence by socio-cultural factors have a deleterious effect on our knowledge requires some knowledge that isn't so mediated and influenced, and this allows us to check on the extent of the influence of bias/ intrusive subjectivity in the mediation.  Also, if (as some contemporary philosophers of religion hold) our knowledge of God is “properly basic" then an objective God can be known. This means that, contrary to the SCR view, the project of knowing/ discerning knowledge of God is not precluded or thwarted by socio-cultural factors at the get go. We enculturate even rivers. We turn rivers into culture. But three dimensions of reality are entirely socially constructed: technological, institutional, and normative facts. Regarding the ground of normative facts, see my comments above on moral realism plus quote from Christian Smith (a respected sociologist who sets out a realist view of moral knowledge) In other words, normative facts are not “entirely socially constructed.” Humans construct roads, not rivers. But we construct the meanings of rivers, even if not the rivers themselves.

Conclusions:

1. Practical embodied activity in the material world is part of human knowing and being [some human existence cannot be reduced to cognition or to language or to socially constructed knowledge. The need to eat, the need to breathe, the need to avoid defying gravity is knowledge that we derive directly from nature. People do not live only in a world of ideas or concepts or meanings. As Milan Kundera said, "I think therefore I am is the statement of intellectual who underrates toothaches."
                     
2. Humans do not socially construct all reality, but primarily their beliefs about reality. Significantly, the beliefs about reality can be evaluated for truth by carefully investigating reality. [Beliefs are not substitutes for the things that beliefs are about, such as what a toothache means.]

3. It comes down to the physical nature given by God compared to the social culture constructed by humans.

[So, perhaps the best conclusion is to say]

4. The best conclusion is "the social construction of social reality" [the technological, the institutional, the normative]

5. Francis Bacon's notion of God's "two books" remains helpful:

God's world = general revelation is given directly to humans by God

God's word = special revelation is given indirectly to humans by God [but] through other humans, i.e., [and to that extent] is socially constructed. [And that's why some trust God's world more than God's word, because they trust the messages in divinely constructed physical nature more than the messages in humanly constructed texts.]

Re: 5. There is a third option that occurs between God's world (general revelation) and God's word (special revelation): the extra special revelation of God in history. Enter the Incarnation of God in the space-time world via Jesus of Nazareth and reported to us via historical evidence—this coupled with the historical evidence for Jesus' bodily resurrection which serves as a sign (evidence) for thinking Jesus is God. Yes, this historical knowledge comes to us via human observers, but this simply means we must assess the evidence given to us by those observers as we assess any other historical evidence for its truth. (For more on this, see my paper “It's not interpretation all the way down.” See link in suggested resources below.)

I've given only a brief description of the social construction of reality, not an evaluation or critique of it. For that you should take Social Science and Christianity, pardon the plug.  For those not taking Dr. Hiebert's course Social Science and Christianity, it is important to notice that the above brief description of SCR makes the controversial assumptions I’ve noted.


Final question:

Is God a mind-independent, objective fact or a mind-dependent, social construction?

My beliefs about God are clearly social constructions.
My faith is that the reality of God lies beyond those constructions.


Because of the emphasis on “or,” the final question sets out a false dichotomy. There is a third option: reasonable faith, i.e., a faith based on evidence and careful reasoning therefrom, evidence and reasoning that is not wholly thwarted by social influences and that is truth-conducive. This is the option that many thoughtful Christians hold and it should not be missed/ dismissed. Recall that the SCR view assumes a fideist view concerning the relationship between faith and reason, i.e., that evidence and reason cannot be used to discern God via nature or God's revelation in Christ via history, and beliefs about God are mere inventions/ social constructions that aren't conducive to truth because God is only subjectively verifiable. The third option—reasonable faith—is especially important because it helps truth seekers to arbitrate between competing claims concerning religious truth by looking for evidence and good reasons. (Note: This is not to say I think we have absolute, God-like, coercively compelling knowledge; it's to say that we can make a reasonable judgment which allows us to direct our faith in the direction to which evidence and good reasoning points.)



4. VDB's final comments

In sum, I have three major criticisms of the SCR view as presented in Dr. Dennis Hiebert's talk “What does ‘The Social Construction of Reality’ mean?”

1. An assumed meta-perspective

SCR assumes a meta-perspective, i.e., a view that somehow stands above the social influences of culture and is able to penetrate/ see through those influences to discern truth—in this case the alleged truth about SCR. If SCR proponents can take this perspective, so can critics.

SCR seems to assume that the truth of the SCR thesis is based on evidence and good reasoning. This implies that appeals to evidence and reasoning are legitimate tools—truth-conducive tools—of investigation. This means it's possible for critics to determine, also using evidence and reasoning, whether some social constructions are better at accessing truth than others—and this includes the social construction of SCR. Note: Such arbitration is not whimsical or arbitrary: it rests on which case is better in its use of evidence and reasoning therefrom (and “better” means taking into account more of known reality, having fewer unnoticed faulty assumptions, fewer fallacies, more good arguments, etc.).

Yes, there are social influences at work. Nevertheless, we can discern whether those social influences are correct in persuading us to socially accept X as real or not. (To know that social influences deceive us requires that we also have particular instances of knowledge in which we are not deceived, which gives us an epistemological toe-hold in reality.) Enter the doing of philosophy: critical thinking about metaphysics (what is real) and epistemology (how we know). Whatever social way one’s beliefs are gotten or accepted (the domain of sociology), they can be tested for truth by careful examination vis-à-vis what we know about reality (the domain of philosophy, etc.).

2. Anti-realist assumption regarding moral value

As I have argued above, the SCR analysis makes the assumption that there is no real moral fabric which is part and parcel—supervenes on/ is an inherent property of—the physical universe. SCR assumes a particular moral view: anti-realism. SCR assumes there is no real value independent of human construction. SCR takes an anti-realist position.

It is important to note that moral realists argue that the SCR’s moral anti-realist assumption is false. Whether one agrees with moral realists or not, it should be noticed that SCR makes an assumption with which highly respected philosophers—and a highly respected sociologist—disagree. Yet SCR seems to pass off this assumption as philosophically settled and true. This may be misleading to the audience, especially students.

(Aside: It's important to note, too, that if Christianity is true, then moral realism would be true, because God deems the creation good and, when humans are on the scene, very good. This allows moral realism to count as evidence which confirms the existence of the biblical God. But such evidence is precluded by the SCR's anti-realist assumption.)

3. Fideism

SCR assumes that the reality of God is only subjectively verifiable/ checkable, i.e., not verifiable objectively as the stuff of the physical world is verifiable/ checkable. But we can verify/ check the objective existence of God by examining God's effects via evidence and good reasoning therefrom, as we do with unseen physical stuff such as magnetic forces, atomic particles, tectonic plates. (We check/ verify indirectly, using evidence and reason.) Enter the kalam cosmological argument, the contingency argument, design arguments, moral arguments, etc. Also, we can verify/ check the historical reality of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, as we do with other objective past events that we haven't seen. In the chart “Types of Realities” SCR presents an epistemological view that knowledge of God is only subjectively accessible, i.e., via wholly personal knowledge, not part of the domain of, or accessible via, evidence and reason.  This is to present a view on the relationship between faith and reason which is fideistic. Fideism holds that evidence and reason cannot be used to discern God and God's revelation in Christ. But this is a controversial view (and I think mistaken view) and is not held by all Christian believers. It's unfair to the audience—especially students—for SCR to assume this view and present it as if it's the only legitimate view that Christians hold.

“Is God a mind-independent, objective fact or a mind-dependent, social construction?” (Emphasis on “or” in original.) This closing question presents a false dichotomy. There is a third option: reasonable faith, i.e., a faith based on evidence and careful reasoning therefrom—evidence and reasoning that is not wholly thwarted by social influences and that is truth-conducive. To non-fideistic thinkers, Christianity is significantly unlike other religions. Why? Because there are good reasons and evidences for the God who grounds our faith—and these are not precluded by the social construction of reality. This allows us to discern the truth of the Christian God in contrast to the false claims of competing religions such as, say, Islam, which denies that Jesus is God, that Jesus died on the cross, and that Jesus resurrected physically. This discernment allows us to place our faith in Him who is the Truth.

4. Conclusion

I have argued that the SCR view as presented by Dr. Dennis Hiebert assumes some deeply important philosophical positions that are controversial and should be made clear to his audience (especially those who will not be taking his course). SCR assumes a meta-perspective, moral anti-realism, and fideism. I trust that the controversial nature of these assumptions have become clear in my critique/ comments.  Viewers—especially students—should be aware of these assumptions so they do not accept them uncritically.


5. Suggested resources

Some suggested resources on the non-fideistic, evidence-based case for the Christian God: 

  • Paul Copan, Loving Wisdom (Chalice Press 2007).
  • C. Stephen Evans, Why Christian Faith Still Makes Sense (Baker Academic 2015).
  • William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed. (Crossway 2008).
  • Anthony Flew, There is a God (HarperOne 2007).
  • Hendrik van der Breggen, A cumulative case argument for Christian faith (Provf Talk 2014).
  • Hendrik van der Breggen, Does God exist? Apologia, The Carillon, March 12, 2009.
  •  J. Warner Wallace, Cold-Case Christianity (Cook 2013). 
Some preliminary thoughts on a non-fideistic case concerning the resurrection of Jesus:

Some suggested readings on the case for real moral values: 

  • Paul Chamberlain, Can We Be Good Without God? (IVP 1996).
  • William Lane Craig, On Guard (Cook 2010), chapter 6 “Can we be good without God?”
  • John Rist, Real Ethics: Reconsidering the Foundations of Morality (Cambridge University Press 2001).
  • R. Scott Smith, In Search of Moral Knowledge: Overcoming the Fact-Value Dichotomy (IVP Academic 2014).
  • Hendrik van der Breggen, Miracle Reports, Moral Philosophy, and Contemporary Science (PhD diss.,         University of Waterloo, 2004), chapter 2 “Moral Philosophy.”
  • Hendrik van der Breggen, Assessing moral relativism, Apologia, The Carillon, January 16, 2010
  • Hendrik van der Breggen, Assessing moral relativism, continued, Apologia, The Carillon, January 29, 2010
  • Hendrik van der Breggen, Is moral realism odd? Apologia, The Carillon, November 27, 2014. 

Are we getting stupider, or just being duped?

APOLOGIA
By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, December 8, 2016

Are we getting stupider, or just being duped?

Maybe I'm getting crankier as I get older, but there's an awful lot of stupid going on. Here are some examples.

Our Prime Minister praises Fidel Castro by saying Castro was a “remarkable” person who “served” and “had tremendous dedication and love for” the Cuban people. Really?

Only if “serve” and “dedication” and “love” include murdering thousands of political dissenters by firing squad, putting additional thousands of dissenters into inhumane prison cells, forcing thousands upon thousands of men, women, and children to flee in rickety boats in shark-infested waters while soldiers shoot at them, impoverishing the millions who don't escape, and being willing to sacrifice Cuba by initiating nuclear war.

My goodness. Castro was a murderous tyrant. But our PM says a murderous tyrant “served” his people? Our. PM. Says. A. Murderous. Tyrant. SERVED. His. People.

Let that sink in—and shudder.

Also, consider this: Our federal government is avoiding due process in its efforts to pass Bill C-16 which protects all gender identities and expressions. Bill C-16 seems innocent enough. But think.

All. Gender. Identities. And. Expressions.

Facebook, which had 58 gender identities, now has “unlimited” gender identities. What does the bill mean? Does it include the 52-year-old man who identifies as a 6-year-old girl?

It's also not at all clear that critics of gender identity will not be considered purveyors of hate speech. Will dissenters be prosecuted?

Where is the robust, truth-seeking debate? Why haven't dissenting expert witnesses been invited to parliament’s committee process?

And why, by discussing Bill C-16 openly, is University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson risking his job? Risking. His. Job.

Is a gender identity ideology, now almost enshrined in law, choking freedom of speech? Once C-16 is passed, will Trudeau's government squelch dissenting opinion and thereby “serve” Canadians as Castro “served” Cubans?

Speaking of dissenting opinions, and getting closer to home, this summer local gay pride organizer Michelle McHale said to those who disagree with pro-gay ideology: “No! No! You don't have a right to your opinion.” No. Right. To. (Dissenting.) Opinion.

Let that sink in. Is this Castro-style “tolerance”? Why aren't local media all over this?

Alarmingly, this ideology is on a long march through all our institutions, including public schools.

Also, Canada's criminal code doesn't recognize unborn children as human beings. Huh? Clearly our law is 100% out of touch with contemporary science that tells us the unborn are in fact human beings.

What are they, if not human beings? Kittens? Puppies? This is beyond stupid.

Yet over 100,000 prenatal children are killed annually in Canada (most killed without medical necessity). But political dissent, especially in Canada's ruling party, is squelched. This is pro-abortion ideology at work.

Also, a while back Manitoba's college of physicians and surgeons asked for public feedback on physician-assisted killing but called it “physician-assisted dying.” Physician. Assisted. Dying.

Of course we all want medical assistance when we die: we all want clean bandages, food, and morphine as death takes its course.

But by “physician-assisted dying” our college of physicians and surgeons means to kill us, not care for us. This. Is. Orwellian. Why weren't the media all over this, too?

About physician-assisted killing: it's now the law of the land in Canada, so present concerns have to do with conscientious objection.

University of Manitoba ethicist Arthur Schafer tells us that all hospitals should perform such killing because rights to conscientious objection belong not to institutions but to individual doctors and nurses. But in another interview this same ethicist tells us that if doctors have moral qualms about physician-assisted killing, they should choose another profession or branch of medicine.

So, on the one hand, doctors have a right to conscientious objection, and, on the other hand, they don't. This. Is. Absurd.

It's also pro-death ideology at work.

Maybe I am getting crankier as I get older. Nevertheless, there is a whole lotta stupid going on. And we're getting duped by it.

Think, folks. Vigilance against ideological tyranny requires it.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is associate professor of philosophy at Providence University College. The views expressed in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)

November 24, 2016

Who Designed the Designer? Debunking Dawkins' Objection

Below is the text from my recent Provf Talk, in case it's of interest to my readers. I'll provide a link to the video version when it becomes available.


Who Designed the Designer?
Debunking Dawkins’ Objection

By Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Providence University College
Provf Talks, November 24, 2016


I. Introduction

Good morning.

The well-known atheist Richard Dawkins was Professor for Public Understanding of Science at University of Oxford from 1995 until 2008.  Dawkins’ 2006 book The God Delusion has sold over 3 million copies and has been translated into over 30 languages.  The book has been and remains influential.  This past July on Steinbach’s Main Street, during Steinbach’s outdoor festival “Summer in the City,” I saw The God Delusion displayed at a kiosk sponsored by a group called HUMANISTS, ATHEISTS, AND AGNOSTICS OF MANITOBA.  The book was displayed almost as a holy book.  In the book’s crucial fourth chapter, Dawkins argues that the objection/ question—Who designed the designer?—blocks any reasonable inference to a designer.  In today’s Provf Talk I will argue that this important objection is a philosophical failure—a philosophical blunder.

First I will clarify the objection.  Then I will set out my critique.  Then I will consider a couple objections to my critique.


II. Clarifying the objection

It’s important to begin by noting that Dawkins acknowledges that there is a complexity to nature which looks designed.  Dawkins has famously stated this: “biology is the study of complex things that appear to have been designed for a purpose.” But, Dawkins emphasizes, the design is merely apparent.

According to Dawkins’ who-designed-the-designer objection, appealing to an intelligent designer to explain nature’s complexity (i.e., its apparent design) is an explanatory failure. Why? Because it merely passes the explanatory buck. The intelligent designer hypothesis transfers the mystery of nature’s complexity, which is the puzzle to be explained, to the mystery of the designer’s complexity, which is a new puzzle to be explained. But this in turn generates another puzzle, i.e., the mystery of the complexity of the designer’s designer. And this generates another puzzle—the mystery of the complexity of the designer of the designer’s designer. And so on.

More specifically, Dawkins argues that because the complexity of the natural world (i.e., its apparent design) is highly improbable, and because the intelligent designer must be at least as complex as the complexity of the natural world, it follows that the intelligent designer must be at least as improbable as the natural world.

But, Dawkins continues, this is to explain one improbability by another improbability at least as great as, or greater than, the first improbability. What is worse (for the intelligent designer proponent), the question of the origin of the designer adds yet another layer of improbability to explain the additional complexity of the designer’s designer. Then the question of the complexity of the designer of the designer’s designer adds yet another layer of improbability. And so on, ad infinitum.

Because of this unending regress of additional improbabilities, Dawkins thinks that the God hypothesis is not a reasonable explanation for the apparent design found in nature. In fact, Dawkins thinks that his argument renders God extremely improbable. Dawkins concludes: “God almost certainly does not exist.” Thus, God is illusory.

Of course, the question arises: Is Dawkins’ who-designed-the-designer argument logically sound?


III. Critique

I think Dawkins’ who-designed-the-designer argument is not sound, for at least two reasons.

1. First, it relies on a false premise. It's false that the complexity of a designer makes a design hypothesis improbable. Intelligent designer explanations are accepted in science (and in everyday reasoning) even if the designer is complex: e.g., in archeology (to explain cave paintings and arrowheads), in cryptography (to explain codes), and in forensic science (to explain “who done it”).  In fact, in these sciences the designer is even more complex than the objects or phenomena explained, yet the designer hypothesis is legitimate.

Notice that if we were to accept Dawkins’ who-designed-the-designer objection as a block to inferring a designer, then—to be logically consistent—the aforementioned explanations would not be legitimate.  But they are legitimate.  In archeology, the designer is more complex than the cave painting and arrowhead.  In cryptography, the designer is more complex than the code.  In forensic science, the designer is more complex than the murder weapon or event. Thus, it’s false that the complexity of a designer makes a designer hypothesis improbable.

2.Second, the issue of the complexity and origin of a designer simply has no bearing on the process of determining whether something is designed. It's not relevant. Consider the science known as SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). In SETI the intelligent design hypothesis is allowed to explain ET's communications (if they were to occur); moreover—and significantly—whether the alleged message is truly a message from ET depends not at all on our knowledge of ET's complexity or origin, but solely on whether the message displays design.

How do we discern design?  Think about some strings of letters in a Scrabble game. Let's say I'm playing Scrabble with my family and I leave the room to answer a phone call and when I return I see these letters: “Dad, it's your turn to buy pizza.” To discern design, two conditions should be satisfied. We determine whether (1) the thing is highly improbable via non-intelligent causes, given what we know from empirical experience of the capacities of non-intelligent causes, and (2) the thing is strongly analogous to things we know (also) from empirical experience to be designed by intelligent causes. Surely, I discern, rightly, that my family wants pizza! The letters organizing themselves on their own into “Dad, it’s your turn to buy pizza” is highly improbable, and that particular string of letters is highly analogous to things done by known intelligent causes. Of course, it's possible I am mistaken, but it's reasonable to think I'm not.

Now consider the message from outer space in the 1997 movie Contact (starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey, a film adaptation of agnostic Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel by the same title). Again, the way to discern whether something is designed is to determine whether (1) the thing is highly improbable via non-intelligent causes, given what we know from empirical experience of the capacities of non-intelligent causes, and (2) the thing is strongly analogous to things we know (also) from empirical experience to be designed by intelligent causes.

In Contact the message that twigs intelligent causation consists of a repeating list of the prime numbers up to and including 101.  Recall that a prime number is any positive integer greater than 1 and is exactly divisible only by 1 and itself: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29….to 101.  Picking out and listing prime numbers is improbable without intelligence. We know this.  Picking out and listing prime numbers is strongly analogous to what intelligent causes do. We know this too—it’s what mathematicians and scientists like to do in their spare time!  (Yes, I’m thinking of Prov’s resident mathematician Yinka Bammeke, Prov’s resident biologist Rebecca Dielschneider, and Prov’s resident social scientists Val Hiebert, Dennis Hiebert, and Morgan Mulenga.)

Back to ET. So, the discernment—the inference—of intelligent design from the list of prime numbers up to 101 is due to these two conditions being satisfied: (1) the thing or pattern is highly improbable via non-intelligent causes, and (2) it is strongly analogous to things we know to be designed by intelligent causes.  Now, notice this: The complexity or origin of the designer, in this case ET, has no bearing on the inference. It is simply not relevant to satisfying the two conditions!

Who designed ET?  Who designed the intelligent cause? Who designed the designer?  Perhaps the designer just is (and always has been).  Or not.  Perhaps the designer is complex.  Or not.  The point here is that we need not understand the nature of a designer (i.e., whether it’s complex or not) or even the origin of a designer (whether it has a designer or not) to determine that something has been designed and, by implication, that a designer exists.  We need only to discern the satisfaction of the two conditions: (1) the thing is highly improbable via non-intelligent causes, and (2) it is strongly analogous to things we know to be designed by intelligent causes.  Therefore, as an alleged block to discerning a designer from its designed effects, the who-designed-the-designer objection is beside the point—it’s not relevant.


IV. Objections to my critique

At this juncture, two objections might be set out to my critique.

1. First, one might be tempted to argue that God is simple and so the God explanation does not fall prey to Dawkins’ objection concerning complexity.

In reply, I’ll just say this. I think that the doctrine of God’s simplicity is an important (and difficult) philosophical and theological doctrine, and should be studied for the sake of achieving greater knowledge of God.  However, I think that such a project would be lost on the likes of Dawkins and so would have little apologetical value.  More importantly, I think it would be a rabbit trail. The fact remains (as I have argued) that whether the designer is simple or complex is irrelevant to the question of discerning whether something is designed, whether by God or a God-like being—i.e., the issue is merely whether the object or phenomenon in question displays the marks of intelligent design.

2. Second, one might object that in my examples in which we clearly detect design—e.g., archaeology, cryptography, forensic science, Scrabble—we model the detectable design on known intelligent causes, i.e., us; but it’s not reasonable to do this sort of modelling with any kind of supernatural intelligent agent such as God.  God, or so it might be objected, is too different from us.

In reply, in the examples of archaeology, cryptology, forensic science, and Scrabble—yes—we are modeling the design inference on known intelligent causes, which happen to be us. But the fact remains that with SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) things get interesting. In SETI we don’t know whether ET is a natural agent or god-like being or angel or something else—yet we permit the discernment of design independent of modeling ET’s mind. We use known intelligence, i.e., ours. If this is reasonable in SETI, which it is, it’s reasonable elsewhere. To say it isn’t reasonable elsewhere is to assume that intelligence other than human intelligence can never be modeled on the known effects of human intelligence. But if the issue is whether such intelligence is in fact limited solely to us, to forward this as an objection is to assume what’s at issue—it commits the fallacy of question-begging. It assumes as settled that which is at issue.  It assumes as settled that there aren't other intelligences somewhat like ours, when that's what we are wondering about. It puts the cart before the horse. It assumes the outcome of an investigation before the investigation begins. We should look and see, and let the evidence lead us.

Maybe there is a Mind or God who made us in God’s image and so we are able, using empirical investigation, to discern this Mind’s empirical effects in the created order. Recall that even Dawkins acknowledges that there is in fact apparent design in nature. Significantly, then, because Dawkins’ who-designed-the-designer objection fails, it does not preclude our discernment of the effects of such a God.


V. Conclusion & recap

Dawkins’ who-designed-the-designer objection has two major flaws: it is based on a false premise, and it is basically irrelevant.  In other words, the objection that purports to show us that God is a delusion is (to put it mildly) a philosophical blunder.

Significantly, nature’s apparent design remains—and continues to suggest an Intelligent Designer. As even Dawkins should admit.


Thank you.