How Culture Defines Reality, and Vice Versa

One day while I was living in Kathmandu I wandered into Freak Street and started rummaging around in an antique store run by an elderly Tibetan. I found an old piece of horn, a little over two feet long, with a spirally ridge climbing from its base to its pointed end. I asked the proprietor what it was:

“That, sir, is the horn of a unicorn,” the Tibetan explained, in reverential tones. “It is very rare.”

“That cannot be,” I said, “for the unicorn does not exist. It is a mythical beast.”

“I am sorry, sir,” said the Tibetan, “but you are wrong. The unicorn must exist, for here is its horn.”

It was a complete standoff. I saw no point in further argument. I acquired the horn, and still have it. It is made out of natural horn as far as I can tell and it has been fashioned into a musical horn by making a small hole at its small end through which someone can blow. It is probably the tusk of a narwhal, a small whale, which the landlocked Tibetans never heard about. It would make an interesting account, how that piece of horn made its way from its original owner all the way to Tibet, what happened to it there, and how it ended up in Kathmandu. But that would be another story.

What is reality anyway? In the physical world we inhabit, there are horses. We all know that horses are real, we’ve lived with them and used them for many millenia. We’ve studied their behavior and lineages. We’ve bred them and fed them and raced them. Almost everybody, theist, atheist, whatever, agrees that horses exist, that they are real. But how about unicorns? My Tibetan friend had never seen one, but than he’d never seen Bombay or Calcutta either, and he knew those places were real. For him the unicorn was just as real, his conviction being based on the testimony of his peers. Nobody can have direct personal contact with everything believed to be real. I for one have never seen a duck-billed platypus, but I believe that such an animal actually exists on the planet. Don’t you? But do you believe in unicorns? I don’t.

Nowadays most people demand better evidence than our Tibetan friend did before they accept as fact the existence of physical phenomena or creatures they have no personal or direct experience with. Education confers structures, which we use to classify incoming information. As we accumulate evidence we learn to discriminate between the probably true and the palpably ridiculous. We hear reports about advances in microbiology and learn that there are a lot of living creatures swimming around that are too small for us to see. We accept the fact even if we never look through a microscope ourselves. The astronomers talk about remote galaxies and dwarf stars and black holes, and even if we haven’t the faintest idea what they are talking about, we take it as given that they have a scientific basis for their claims, and are not just spinning fantasies for our amusement.

Contemporary (as opposed to traditional) cultures have largely adopted the view that reality in the physical world can best be established through the scientific method. As a general rule, we no longer accept that something is true or real because someone in a position of authority has told us so. We expect a process of verification that ideally involves replication of the original situation, repeated testing, and correlation with data that have already been established. Not everybody agrees, of course; superstitious people still abound even in contemporary cultures, and a fascination with other-worldly speculation still persists even among the scientifically well-informed. But on the whole, modern people have demystified the physical universe.

But each of us inhabits another universe, the universe of the human mind, and the mental constructs or “memes” which it creates, transmits, uses, records, stores, and recombines. As Dawkins has pointed out, memes have lineages, and compete with similar memes for space in the limited attention spans of human populations. (See “Creatures of the Mind“). Memes aggregate into more complex memes. Religious beliefs are one kind; whole cultures can be considered another, even more complex aggregate. Both religions and cultures are composed of ideas about what constitutes good behavior, what constitutes group identity, what practices are appropriate on certain occasions, and so forth. They deal with what you do, why you do it, and how to do it. None of this exists objectively in the physical world around us.

Each of us has a problem in dealing with mental constructs or memes that is essentially the same as the one we face in dealing with reported things in the physical world: is it true or false, real or fantasy? Can we, in the world of the human mind, distinguish between the “real” and the “unreal” the way we can distinguish within the physical world between, say a horse and a unicorn? And if so, how? Are there any universal principles or guidelines that can help us tell the gold from the dross?

Philosophers have been trying to answer this kind of question for millenia. Plato distinguished between the physical and the ideal, and considered only the latter to be real. Descartes tried to separate the mind from the physical world completely (Cartesian dualism). More recently, there has been an enormous amount of study and research into how the brain produces thoughts, the role of language, the role of culture, and related subjects. Evolutionary perspectives are increasingly infusing and illuminating all these efforts. The rapidly evolving study of memetics promises further progress in our efforts to figure out how we separate the real from the unreal, within the universe of human thoughts as well as in our dealings with the physical world around us. Just what are our mental guideposts, what are they based on, and how did we arrive at them?

The humanist approach allows us to open doors that have long been closed. Theists by definition look to divine guidance for answers to the most basic questions. They tend to assume that the supreme being they worship, having created everybody, will operate according to some single, unifying set of principles. And then they waste a lot of time trying to discern what those principles may be. Humanists, by contrast, believe humans are solely responsible for what has happened in the past, and what will be achieved in the future. It follows that the humanists are more open than the theists to the revolutionary idea that there is no underlying set of principles, there are only the guidelines and practices that societies have worked out, through trial and error for the most part, over the millenia, in various places, at various times, and under various circumstances. Humanists, therefore, are more able to accept the still unfamiliar concept that there is no single guiding principle for distinguishing either between right and wrong, or between the real and the unreal. Reality, like beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder. For my Tibetan friend, the unicorn was real, even though it may be unreal as far as the rest of us are concerned.

This constitutes an important step forward. We can now attempt to define the underlying factors that guide societies in determining what is real and what is fantasy, not only in the physical world, but in our own, human-created, memetic universe.

I do not subscribe to the postmodernist, existentialist notion that everything is in the mind, in effect denying the “reality” of the physical and biophysical planet we inhabit. Of course there is a tangible world out there, composed of “things”, not “memes”. And it doesn’t give a damn whether we understand it completely, or only partially, or not at all. The history of human evolution, since we attained our present physiological form, is essentially the history of our efforts to understand that real world better and figure out ways to bend it to our purposes. When we achieve a new level of understanding we adapt to and use the outside world more effectively. Our understanding achieves a higher level of functionality.

Functionality has to be a key element in the world of the mind as well as in the physical world. The two do not exist independently, as Descartes suggested. On the contrary, the interaction between them is continuous and intimate. A culturally specific idea or technique that enhances a group’s prospects for physical survival in competition with another group is likely to be a winner, and the culture of the first group will soon come to take for granted that it is correct behavior. Or in other words, that it is valid, and that alternatives are not. From there it is but a short step to assume that it is part of the reality of their way of life, as opposed to the unrealities, or wrongness, of unproven alternatives.

Take religion. An aggregate of memes clustered around the central notion of Godhead has probably been an essential element of culturally identified groups for a very long time. Religious faith and conviction provide its adherents with an enormous amount of cohesion and a sense of purpose. As long as the human species was sharply divided into distinct culturally identified units, religion conferred a very significant survival value. Now the boundaries between cultural units are blurring, a global society is slowly taking shape, and the survival value of religion is fading away. It is no longer as functional as it used to be. Indeed, it is becoming dysfunctional.

Once a culture develops a functional set of attitudes and practices, it locks on to them and changes only slowly, over generations, and then only in response to challenges. Children absorb the culture of their peers quickly and naturally, while they are learning their first or native language. (See “Humanist Ethics“). They retain these thought patterns throughout their adult life, changing them only slowly and reluctantly, if at all. The young of the next generation respond to the challenges of changing times more readily than do their parents.

Some elements of culturally identified values are more conservative than others; the culture normally responds to challenges by modifying only some elements of the totality of principle and practices which govern the behavior of its members. Other elements, particularly those related to basic values, are likely to change more slowly. A given society may react to the introduction of new technology by changing its habits of production and consumption while hanging on as long as possible to its traditional religion and social mores. Much of the Arab World in contemporary times vividly illustrates this condition.

In conclusion, culture shapes the individual’s perception of what is real and what isn’t in the world of the mind as well as in the physical world. But it is a very complex process, as complicated as the human mind itself. And the objective situation in the physical world ultimately determines how cultural attitudes and values evolve. The human mind, the human brain, the human body, the biosphere, and the parent planet are all intertwined in a marvelous contrapuntal interplay of themes. As a modern human, I find it fruitless to argue which is more real. They are all equally real. For me, unreality steps in only when that underlying relationship is denied.


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3 Responses to How Culture Defines Reality, and Vice Versa

  1. Jeremy blanchard says:

    Have you ever forgotten a word mid sentence and it was on the tip of your tongue and you could kind of just feel it, you knew what the word meant and was confident it was the right one to use but couldn’t say it? Well that’s how I felt before I read this. My teacher asked if culture shapes ones way of viewing others and the world and I instantly knew the answer. My brain processed everything in this whole theory you’ve written but it couldn’t convert it into words. As I read your article it’s like I had really bad déjà vu. I knew and understood this theory as a feeling instead of a thought. Freaky as hell, it’s like I imagined a new color human eyes cant see and you just showed me a picture of the colour.

  2. henk tuten says:

    cultural reality is a laboratory for DNA. The effective parts are after thousands/millions of years made to hardware in DNA.
    cultural reality is the way our brain interpretes sense experience, quite physical.

    have a look at:

  3. Pingback: Episode 125: Reality - Blurry Photos

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