Reality, some say, is constructed. Others claim things are there regardless of our perceptions. It’s both.
Consider the recent Jupiter-Venus conjunction. Our perception on recent nights is that Jupiter and Venus appear to be very close together, with Venus obviously being the brighter, and thus the larger, planet. Here from one of NASA’s blogs is a description of the concrete realities of distance and size of Jupiter and Venus.
On June 30, Venus is about 46 million miles from Earth, and Jupiter is 560 million miles from Earth. Looking up at the sky, Venus appears to be much brighter than Jupiter. That is only because Venus is so much closer to Earth. Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, is actually over 11 times bigger than Venus, but it is dimmer when looking at the sky because of its great distance from our planet.
And…while these numbers tell us Jupiter and Venus are, in fact, not close to each other at all, the visual conjunction in our skies has the capacity to create a sense of curiosity, wonder, or excitement that might result in any number of concrete actions (writing a poem or song, taking up astronomy as a course of study or hobby, making love) inspired by what we know is a fiction. The result of any of these concrete actions (a song performed, a degree in astronomy, a living child) is a reality contributing to the unfolding nature of what we might call “the real world.”
Reality is multi-layered, complex, emergent, and largely constituted in relationship, whether that relationship is between molecules, events across time, or varying people groups. Reducing a thing to its constituent parts will not necessarily yield understanding of the nature of the larger thing. (Christian Smith, What is a Person?) The physical universe and my consciousness interact to create ongoing action and effort that participates in the creation of expanding reality.
The physical realities are not always what they seem. The table I’m working at seems solid, and is solid, according to both perception and experience, but physics tells me the table is mostly empty space. The light that reaches us from the stars seems instant, new born, but is, in fact, millions of years old. Consciousness can be altered with brain-invasive chemicals, but the brain is not consciousness. The earth is not flat.
Without question, our perception shapes our experience of reality.
Yet, regardless of perception, slamming into rock surfaces at high rates of speed after leaping from a high cliff will kill you. Certain kinds of foods, spider bites, and bacteria will do the same. Sleep, food, and water must be had in order to survive no matter how high your self-esteem. A male’s sperm and a female’s egg must somehow unite to make a new human life, regardless of sexual preference. Excellence in work begins in effort, yet we cannot make grass or corn or flowers grow.
Social realities, however, are largely constructed. Perceptions of individual worth and meaning, standards of ethics and morality, qualities of aesthetic judgment—all these may flux as tides of social thought ebb and flow, but the resulting actions and social structures that emerge from these perceptions, standards, and judgments have agency and force in our street-level lives. Social realities, while constructed, are just that—real. And to deny they exist (say, for example, racism… “Oh, we’re past that, right?”) does not change the fact of their real impact on real lives.
There are concrete realities outside my perceptions. To persist in acting as though my perceptions trump that concrete reality will cost me. To creatively and passionately discern the difference between those parts of reality that can be shaped by my perceptions, and those parts of reality to which my perceptions must conform, is wisdom.
Constructed realities can, should, and do change. Unconstructed realities will not change, scream as we will. As Christian Smith says, some things simple cannot be socially constructed out of existence.
This is my place of beginning in reflecting on what I know: some things, finally, are concretely real; their factualness and state of being existing before and beyond my perception.
Where this leads to, we’ll have to see…