Redefining Reality: Seeing is Disbelieving

Jan 24th, 2012 | By | Category: Lead, Timothy McGettigan

Epistemology = How do we know the world that we know? Ontology = What is the nature of the world that we know? In this short article Dr. Tim argues not only that the world is a materialist presence that exists independent of our observation (his ontological statement), but that this materialist presence can be known basically through a process of empirical trial and error. The empirical trial and error is necessary because the human is fallible, given to delusion, and open to manipulation and contrivance. That much is true, we are too easy to fool it seems. But is that in our nature, or is it a function of our flawed socialization process? That’s the rub. Personally, I think socialization but then hey, this a Sociology journal and I’m a sociologist, so maybe I’m biased (or maybe, it is the Truth).

Redefining reality is a process through which individuals can challenge inadequate paradigms through a combination of astute observation and an ingenious capacity for innovative cognition (i.e., agency). The notion of redefinable reality posits, in agreement with Popper’s realist philosophy, that there is a universe “out there” that exists independently of human cognition (Popper, 1983). As such, I argue that universal Truth does exist, but such Truth is not (nor will it ever be) contained within extant scientific paradigms (McGettigan, 2011). Rather, The Truth extends infinitely into the unlocked mysteries of the expanding universe. In other words, reality is what it is: an asteroid is an asteroid is an asteroid, etc… Truth is an intrinsic, inseparable feature of phenomena as they exist independently of human perception. Lies and distortions come into existence via humanity’s vast capacity for ignorance: humans view the illimitable universe through awed and flawed psyches. Although admirable in many ways, the human grasp of infinite mysteries remains woefully incomplete. Nevertheless, the process of redefining reality permits limited human psyches to transcend the limitations of inadequate paradigms in pursuit of a grander vision of Truth.

Redefining reality generally begins when individuals notice a disjuncture between observable facts and established modes of explanation, e.g., a democratic system that is supposed to serve the people, but that instead caters to the whims of the powerful. Due to their devotion to established modes of thought, some observers might ignore anomalies, or contrive a convenient explanation that sustains their belief in what is already known, e.g., democracy in the United States may be imperfect, but it distributes power pluralistically through a convoluted representational system. Alternately, more independent thinkers might treat such a dilemma as an opportunity to transcend the socially-imposed barriers that constrain their understanding of observable reality.

The process of transcending socially imposed cognitive barriers often begins with a creative observation (e.g., “Hey! Why don’t politicians ever follow through on their campaign promises?”). In some cases, individuals who are determined to make sense of the anomaly in question might follow up their observations by developing an individual-level intellectual challenge to established modes of understanding (i.e., it appears as though the United States democratic system is primarily designed to serve the interests of power-brokers). Such acts of intellectual rebellion tend to further erode the foundations of conventional thinking (i.e., “Based upon what I have observed, I no longer believe democracy in the United States serves the will of the people.”). Finally, the culmination of the redefinition of reality process involves constructing an entirely new explanation that simultaneously explodes existing ideological boundaries while also advancing a more adequate description of the phenomena in question, i.e., the United States political system masquerades as a democracy, while functioning like an elite-centered oligarchy.

Thus, as the foregoing example illustrates, individuals occasionally demonstrate the requisite mental apparatus to make note of anomalies, develop creative new explanations for mysterious phenomena, and then overcome manifestations of social power that delimit their thought and action. Therefore, the thoughts and behaviors of individual social actors are not entirely determined by the invisible influences of social coercion. Instead, sometimes agents can creatively counteract the distorting influences of social coercion and, in so doing, generate moments of truth.

A moment of truth is an experience wherein individuals, via the process of redefining reality, are transported from an inadequate version of reality to a more satisfactory paradigm. These experiences may be considered relatively truthful in that they are generated through a process whereby agents systematically counteract the influences of invisible social power over their definitions of reality. Thus, Mills (1956) argues that people who confine their analysis of the US political system to the realm of the observable (i.e., the words and deeds of elected politicians), cannot help but fall prey to artfully calculated illusions. From Mills’ perspective, the observable activities of political actors in the United States are designed to provide a convincing impression that politics-as-usual lives up to the ideals of democracy. Yet, Mills argues that appearances are deceiving. While political representatives go through the motions of faithfully serving their constituents, shadowy operators work behind the scenes to ensure that politics-as-usual serves the interests not of the majority, but of a privileged minority of power elites. Consequently, the truth is not defined by facts alone, rather the truth can only emerge as a result of a deeper investigation into the manner in which perception is often cunningly distorted by the interventions of social power. Therefore, it is in the process of counteracting the distorting influences of social power that it becomes possible for agents to experience moments of truth.


McGettigan, Timothy, 2011. Good Science: The Pursuit of Truth and the Evolution of Reality. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
Mills, C. Wright. The Power Elite. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956.

Popper, Karl, 1983. Realism and the Aim of Science. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield.

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9 Comments to “Redefining Reality: Seeing is Disbelieving”

  1. I have a question for you Dr. Tim, when you say individuals may be “transported” to a more satisfactory paradigm, where does that more satisfactory paradigm emerge. I’m asking because when I look around me I don’t see any satisfactory alternative paradigms, I see more of the same old philosophical, scientific, even spiritual bullshit. So people may have their “moment,” and they may “look around” for something better, but what is there that’s better to choose?

  2. Good question, Dr. Mike. Agents generate more satisfactory paradigms by developing entirely original explanations for anomalies that had previously defied reasonable explanation. There are lots of examples in science: Darwin began his adventure on the Beagle as a committed creationist, but finished by developing his revolutionary theory of evolution. There was simply no way to fit all the biological and geological anomalies that he witnessed into the creationist framework, so Darwin had to create an entirely new, original explanatory framework into which he could fit and make sense of the anomalies. Einstein did similar things in the realm of physics during his miracle year in 1905. People (and not just scientists) redefine reality in small and large ways every day.

  3. Yup, makes sense. I wonder though if there aren’t other problems that need to be addressed. First of all, people have to see the anomaly before they can even begin to consider it a problem. For example, most people, despite the fact that they can see the environmental, social, and psychological problems that emerge from it, nevertheless do not “see” any problem with the capitalism that causes it. To you and me its as obvious as the sky above, so why not so to others? It seems to me that one of the tasks of the “agents” must be to help people notice that something is wrong, that there is a disjuncture, an anomaly, or whatever you want to call it.

    Second, there is the question of redefining reality. Even though I think people have the potential to redefine reality, I think most of the time they don’t bother and there are lots of reasons for that other then the suggestion that they are incapable. Time is a big one. Who the hell has time to redefine reality these days? Most of us are too busy performing in our jobs to take the time and effort to redefine reality even in response to the smallest disjuncture. Mass media is another obstacle. Mass media basically re-creates the status-quo version of reality (a reality full of disjuncture) and they do it with ridiculous amounts of resources, billions of dollars a year. How to compete against that. Motivation is yet another obstacle. Redefining reality in a significant way is a huge task and would probably take a committed individual many years to work through. That’s a big commitment. Of course, as professors I think it would be very easy to make the case that it is our job to help with that task. It’s our job to identify anomalies and heal disjuncture in ever more accurate approximations of the Truth. I think society has evolved a specialization for this and we are it. The problem is, we hide our thinking about things away in stodgy academic journals where, literally, only a handful of people might ever read what we write. in those conditions we can redefine all we want but its not going to ever make a difference since nobody is ever going to read it.

    All this it not to take away from what you are saying, but simply point to The Socjourn here as disciplinary development with a uniquely revolutionary potential, embedded in exactly the sorts of issues and concerns you raise in your article here. What happens when the “reality specialists” like you and I begin exposing our discussions to a mass audience in this exact fashion? Kuhn may have been a conservative when it came to discussing the revolutionary (i.e. paradigm shifting) potential of science, but he was writing at a time when the only way scholars could communicate was in expensive scholarly journals, or in exclusive yearly conferences. I wonder what he would say about the paradigm shifting potential of science now?

    Of course, just because there is potential here doesn’t mean the potential will necessarily be actuated. Scientists are going to have to step up to the plate provided by all these fancy new communication technologies, and that actually might be the biggest obstacle there is since they’ll have to overcome arrogance, elitism, a balkanized psychology, and their own lack of skill (I’ve met only one or two scientists who know how to write a good sentence). But still, and as The Socjourn clearly demonstrates, it is possible.

    Anyway, Dr. Tim, at the risk of being accused of shameless self promotion, how do you think The Socjourn fits into the sorts of issues you and I are discussing here?

  4. You are absolutely correct. The anomalies that inspired the Copernican revolution went ignored by the world’s greatest minds for more than a thousand years. People have an extraordinary capacity to resist intellectual evolution. I still have colleagues who work on typewriters.

    That said, people also have an amazing capacity to initiate change. This journal is a case in point. When I was in graduate school, it took six months to review the first paper that I submitted to a traditional academic journal. I was invited to revise and resubmit my article and, upon doing so, it took another 6-8 months to complete the second round of the review process–which, annoyingly, resulted in another invitation to R&R from a completely different set of reviewers. In the end, I wasted more than a year of precious time, and, ultimately, a small group of small-minded academic gate-keepers prevented me from sharing my ideas with the larger academic community.

    The Socjournal changes all of that–radically! The Socjournal is electronic and, thus, rather than taking months or years to generate publications, The Socjournal travels at the speed of thought. Also, try as they might, gate-keepers have not been able to fence in the Internet. As a result, The Socjournal is a venue that stimulates (rather than quashes) the free exchange of ideas.

    In a fast-changing world, the more ideas that people generate and share, the better. Thus, The Socjournal represents the future of scholarship in a fast-evolving information society. The gate-keepers of traditional academic publication may not like it, but the stodgy, old hold-outs of archaic paradigms never like to witness the future passing them by.


  5. What a remarkably timely discussion this is. I just read this

    and sent an email to the Chronicle editors that said this

    Hi there

    I just read the Stanford Article

    And you may be interested in some work I’ve been doing. I have started an online disciplinary journal call The Socjourn as a way of bringing Sociology to a mass audience.

    The journal is not designed to break the connection with my institution, as the initiative of Sebastian Thrun appears to do, but to strengthen the connection between professor and institution by a) increasing market awareness and b) providing a kind of funnel for potential students into the institution so they may pursue individual courses or full credentials. How to do this? The goal is to have practitioners, rather than communicate within the balkanized world of “scholarly publication,” engage in a form of accessible public discussion, dealing with disciplinary issues, engaging in key debates, in an accessible fashion, and so on. Kind of like the old Greek philosophical model where the philosopher goes and stands in a public square and attracts students, but with the awareness that there is still value in the University as institution.

    We’ve tagged some of the issues in the discussion component of this article

    Hmm. I like to think that what we are doing here isn’t quite so ridiculous and individualistic as Thrun. We are revolutionizing the scholarly world while still maintaining a place for its institutions, credentials, and so on. We are also protecting ourselves from the corrupting influence of commercialism as well. (Is it a surprise to find Google behind Thrun on this I wonder?). You can read an earlier article I wrote entitled The University, Accountability, and Market Discipline in the Late 1990s that might be relevant here.

    In this context maybe The Socjourn provides a useful model for academics interesting in breaking through the limitations of traditional pedagogical models, while still retaining and supporting the institutions that we originally built to begin with.

  6. lucy says:

    911 was an inside job. But what I didn’t understand was why would they do such a thing. I can only look at the chain of events that followed the popular misconception of 911 such as the US invading Afghanistan and going into war with Iraq on the false accusation of WMD. What the war did was it drained the economy and gave more power to corporations who then have bought the politicians who aid in generating the rules. Privatization takes hold, thus personal agenda does also with emphasis on enriching the few while further enslaving the masses. Its about control and obtaining more control of all the people as time goes on.

    Personally, I do not appreciate someone else designing my life for me deciding where I live, with whom and how I live. Infact anything near those types of lame design are infuriating.

    Your article is a breath of air much needed in a smothering controlled, coerced social environment. It is a relief to know that others see the same thing that I do, have struggled with the games played and really want to change this behavior by lifting the veil so that all people see the charade for what it is. I just returned home from my University where I observed yet another unnecessary big dog and pony show. Times’ a wasting, a famous scene that comes to mind here from the movie “Jaws” is where Sheriff Brody asks for directions and they are given in nautical terms-which he can’t translate, so he says, “JUST POINT!”

  7. Life and decision-making is a complex process, indeed. If we follow the path of least resistance, then we will reaffirm corporate control over our decision-making, e.g., mindlessly wandering through grocery stores and filling our carts with Bud light and Doritos, or, worse, falling into the drive-thru routine at McDs.

    Agents can do better. We don’t have to destroy the world, but we do have to dissent.

    Truth-seekers must be rebels.

  8. Robert Ostow says:

    Dr. Tim. in the united states there are many useless paradigims of reality. The greatest statement you make is that picture of a television on the left side of your article. Paradigms are presented one after the other, as we seek the truth of our existence in the world. Political paradigims are presented every day on television, and people believe them. That is why are political system is what it is is. It seems to me that a cursory reading of this article, seems to suggest power in a macro sociological context. Maybe we ought to retreat to the power dynamics in psychiatry. Many years ago Dr. R. D. Lang (1959) indicates that the powerful forces of the medical model, have created deadly manipulations over the psychiatric patient. Psychiatrists and the American Psychiatric Association, are creating models of opression all the time. In essence, a large macro sociological orientation and analysis, just skims over the facts of sociologists, who wish to glaze over the truth. A more micro attack would be better, because human beings in this country rarely know the reality of political machinery out to get them. Dr. Sosteric word bullshit has become an important concept in sociology, because many aspects of a social model are just that. In the united states, realism is clouded by political and social bullshit. In this regard, the use of a phenomenological model, is best used by Lang (1959), when he discuses levels of inner security of the schizophrenic during treatment in the early fifties. I love your article, but what does it really mean? Just like this comment sociologists are prown to models that are prone to abstractions, that distort realism. As my psychiatrist says, I observe your behavior, and give your odd behavior a name. You are now stuck inside some model, that we will never get you out of. Maybe some xanax would straighten out this comment. robert

  9. I’m glad you liked the article. Let me know if you have any questions.

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