The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

“The Construction of Reality” Introduction & “The Social Facts Which Rule Us”

As part of the annual fundraiser I promised to share some of the chapters of my book “The Construction of Reality.” At $6,200, we have the first four chapters (originally it was 5, but I’ve done some editing and combined two), “The Introduction”, “The Social Facts Which Rule Us”, “Being Aware”, and “Human Alone.”

If we make $8,350 we’ll have:

5. Identity and Identification (how we expand our bodies beyond our physical selves)

6. The Ritual (how we create identification)

7. Interaction ritual (how daily life creates identification and personality)



I wonder if you have a memory of when you first realized many people are miserable or suffering.

I don’t.

I remember the time before. When I was six or younger the world just seemed open and fascinating and almost everyone was really nice. Well, some of the other kids weren’t, but the adults were.

I remember after, around age seven or so. I knew a lot of people were in pain, even if they tried to conceal it. My father and mother were two of the sufferers.

Soon enough I became one of them, because what makes the world good or bad is largely other people. The people closest to me lived in Hell, and they took me with them.

But I do remember the day when I realized humans were making humans suffer.

I grew up in Vancouver, a lovely coastal city on the west coast of Canada. These were the days when it was still a working class port for lumber from the interior of BC and not a third class world city.

Like all cities, essentially everything in it was created by humans. The roads, the houses, the schools. The trees were planted where humans wanted them planted. The teachers were there because of human decisions; the booze my parents drank was made by humans; the jobs my father, a forester went to, because humans had decided to chop down trees.

I liked trees a lot more than humans. No tree had ever done me wrong.

So many of these people were miserable.

But we; we humans, had created all of this. Not just the physical world, with its ugly asphalt roads, but the daily lives that made them miserable: the schools; the businesses; the money they squabbled over; the booze they used to cover the pain.

When I was a teenager, my father took a job in Bangladesh, then possibly the poorest country in the world.

Vancouver and Bangladesh were different levels of Hell. One better than the other, but both Hell

I didn’t get it.

Why, when we made all the decisions, would we choose to create hell for ourselves? Didn’t we all want to be happy? Didn’t we like being around happy people instead of miserable people? Since we made it, if it was making people miserable, why didn’t we make it different? Better?

The book you are reading today is part of a life-long quest to find out the answer.

We create the reality we live in.

Since we created it, we can change it, but first we have to understand what it is, why and how we made it the way it is.

Let’s start with what. Let’s look at what we’ve constructed in more detail.

Chapter 2: The Social Facts Which Rule Us

Reality is constructed first by our bodies. By our senses and universal emotions like fear and lust, anger and love. Being human orders the world for us before we take our first breath.

This is true of all animals, who, like humans, also change the environment to suit themselves. But humans have created a reality far, far from that of our forebears who ran in bands on the Savannah.

We have created a human world. Most of us live in cities; artificial environments created by us. We walk on streets laid out by humans, work and sleep and cook in buildings, drive in cars or take buses, trains and planes. We talk on cell phones and surf the internet. Even those who live in the country live on land which has been altered by agriculture and pasturing of animals humans domesticated. A farmer grows wheat which was bred over millennia (or genetically altered recently). The farmer raises animals humans have been raising for thousands of years. We eat the meat of cows and pigs and chicken; we dine on rice or wheat or vegetables we have tended for millennia and which we have bred to suit us.

As individuals we did not create almost any part of this physical world. We did not invent the techniques for caring for domesticated animals, growing vegetables or making smart phones.

We live in a physical world created by humans, many of whom are dead. Human life is human in a way that animal life is not animal. Animals have an effect on the environment, but it is minor compared to what humans have done to our world.

And this is just the physical side of the world. Just as important is the world of ideas: of social facts.

Look at the words you are reading right now. You didn’t invent writing, typing, any of these words or language itself. You spend your life thinking most of your thoughts in a language or languages created by humans, for humans and mostly by dead humans. The very structure of your thoughts was imposed on you.

You almost certainly receive your daily food in exchange for something called money which is probably either plastic woven to look like paper or electronic bits. Money has no intrinsic value, a million dollars in the middle of Antarctica would do nothing for you, most money isn’t even paper any more: you couldn’t burn it for heat. Yet most of us spend most of our waking day working for someone who gives us “money” and exchange it for most everything else we want.

In times of war and famine money may lose most of its value. Food, or cigarettes or sex may be worth more. Money’s value is a social fact.

When someone is killed by another human being, whether it was murder or not is a social fact. In war, if a soldier kills someone it is probably not murder. If the state is executing someone it is not murder. When police kill someone it is usually not considered murder. Social facts.

The quality and amount of health care provided to individuals is a social fact. It depends on where they live. In some countries it depends on how much money they have. In other countries it depends on how much power they have.

The amount of melanin in someone’s skin is a physical fact. That having a “black” name in America leads to half the interview requests for an identical resume compared to someone with a “white” name is a social fact(x).

Cannabis is almost certainly less physically harmful than tobacco or alcohol, but selling or possessing cannabis is far more likely to get you thrown in jail. In the US, during alcohol prohibition, this was not true. Alcohol is alcohol, its legal status is a social fact.

Social facts rule most of your life. They are layered on top of physical facts and tell you how to understand those facts, and how to act towards them. There are few more consequential decisions than “when should I kill someone?” or “when should someone receive health care and how good should it be? or, “should I hire someone and for how much?”

Not all ideas are social facts. You may believe something “ought” to be true, but often other people do not agree. You think your girlfriend or boyfriend shouldn’t cheat, they don’t agree; the state doesn’t care. But if you act on that idea, and so do other people, it’s a social fact. They may call her a cheater, ostracize her and so on. If no one acts on it, it is not a social fact.

A gang or mafia may believe that their members shouldn’t inform, and they may enforce this as best they can, but obviously the state does not. It is still a social fact if they can make it one, however.

You may also believe in ideas which are contrary to the ideas currently enforced by the state or other people. Perhaps you do not believe in intellectual property. Perhaps you think confessions obtained by torture shouldn’t be used in criminal proceedings. Perhaps you believe that women should or shouldn’t be able to have abortions.

These ideas may fall short of being social facts if no one acts on them. They are just ideas: how the world “ought” to be.

This social world is layered on top of the physical world created by our bodies and how they perceive and interact with objects around us. No amount of social facts will alter the solidity of a rock, or our need to breath.

Each of us lives inside these two worlds, worlds which were largely given to us.

Imposed on us.

At most we made a few choices from available worlds; available realities, but most of our choices were made for us.

The reality, I, a Canadian urban man live in is different from that of a woman Mexican subsistence farmer, let alone that of a plains Indian 700 years ago; a prole in the Roman Republic, or an Egyptian priest under the Pharoahs.

This is before we get to more differences that seem important to us today: say the difference between a conservative Republican Christian and his counterpart progressive Democratic atheist. A thousand years from now, those may seem like similar people, today they seem quite different.

Our bodies make us alive, but they make us different as well: to be tall or short is to experience the world differently. To have a strong constitution or a sickly one is to experience the world differently, as well.

And to be a woman or a man, likewise; so much so that men and women in some societies (Saudi Arabia today, Victorian England, or Manchu China) can be said to have such different experiences in life that they might as well live in different worlds: different realities.

Reality is inside-out, first, because we have bodies and senses which organize our experience of the world, and do so before the first drop of parental interference, training or culture.

But it is outside-in in most of the ways which make us different from each other and from other humans who have lived in the past.

Each of us is formed by time, place and position. Even if we were both male, with similar bodies, in Republican Rome, were I born to a Plebian family and you to a Patrician family, our worlds would part, and even if both of us were born to Patrician families the particulars of our parents, tutors and other incidentals would leave us different. Position within a place and time, added to different bodies makes up most of the individuality which divides us from our peers.

Even the thoughts we think, and many of the emotions we feel happen because of social facts and ideals. No one was born loving God and Country, or hating certain religions, or believing that people have a right to happiness or that we should obey teacher.

Our thoughts, our emotions, come from other people. From social facts and learning and conditioning. They may be the most intimate things we own, sometimes even more than our bodies, and yet… in a real way, they are not ours.

So to understand how reality has been constructed we will have to swoop from the heights of macro-history; of the effects of great ideas, of technologies like gunpowder and farming, or organization and vast tribal identities, to the depths of our inner experience: our thoughts, our feelings, our urges and beliefs.

Reality is an experience. Each of us lives in a reality, feels it and thinks about it. As we live we change the reality we live in, or it changes around us, and again, our experience of the world changes.

To write a book on the construction of reality while neglecting how we can change reality would be barren. Though careful examination reveals that most of human reality is imposed on us from outside, by time place and position: none of which we chose, we do not have to accept this passively.

While even the great struggle to change our shared world; our shared reality; all of us can change the reality we live in, by taking some control of our circumstances; or denied that: by changing how our bodies and brains interpret the world.

So we will cover the vast currents of history and pre-history. Of identity, organization, technology and ideology. We will speak of human empathy, human violence, and human limits, because it is human limits which have the greatest affect on the world we create and our acceptance of the world that we are given.

But in so doing, we will not neglect the personal.

Let us then, start from the inside. Let us start with you.

I’ll publish the next two chapters this week and if we get to $8, 350, we’ll do the next two. At $10,500, there’ll be three more chapters.

9.The Ritual Masters (How rituals create different types and classes of people)

10. The Ideologues (How identity is tied into story, ideology and meaning)

11. Reign of the Ideologues (How ideology is used to create civilizations and the payoffs for ideologues)

If you’d like to subscribe or donate, I’d appreciate it greatly. This blog is 100% supported by its readers, though it’s free to all to read.


Why Israel Is Performing So Badly Against Hamas


“Construction of Reality” Chapter 3: Being Aware


  1. Raad

    Good stuff man, I’ll come back to finish the 20% or so left from my first reading later but as always; good stuff and can’t wait to finish the rest and the ones coming soon ✅✅✅

  2. StewartM

    This echoes many of the tenets of the anthropologist Marvin Harris’s cultural materialism. (Working outward from our individual needs as humans that we seek to satisfy, and the environment we live in and the technology we have to try to satisfy those needs (“infrastructure”), probablistically determines its family and kinship and political “structure”, which in turn drives the belief systems used to justify the “rightness” or “ought-to-be-isms” of that society (the “superstructure”).

    Are you familiar with that, Ian?

  3. Joan

    Interesting read so far, looking forward to more.

  4. Ian Welsh

    Stewart: no. Thought Harris’s thought stream sounds fairly Marxist. What would I read if I wanted to learn more.

    I’d say that material circumstances (tech stack+geography) determine possible ideologies, but there’s a fair bit of difference possible inside each major stack. I talk about this quite a bit later on.

  5. Paul Harris

    How do we achieve this change without free will?

  6. Mario

    Being currently jobless I’ll have to delay my contribution, sorry. In the meantime I can help only by proofreading. Here are the spelling, grammatical, and interpunction mistakes I’ve noticed:

    > the jobs my father, a forester went to,

    perhaps should be “my father (a forester) went to”

    > or our need to breath[e].

    > under the Pharoahs.

    > born to a Plebian family

    Generally speaking, the multitude of commas and semicolons also forced me to re-read several paragraphs.

  7. StewartM


    Thought Harris’s thought stream sounds fairly Marxist.

    Yes, but he criticizes Marx-Engels for incorporating the dialectic. Not everything comes in opposites, he says, and in anthropology many things don’t have opposites.

    He also includes the descriptor ‘probablistically’ in his theory and moreover I think from reading Cultural Materialism (a good primer on both anthropological theory and epistemology in general) he would argue that cultural selection is akin to natural selection. A culture, like an organism, doesn’t have an infinity of options for its evolutionary pathway, but is limited by its starting point. Cultures, like organisms, can have holdover traits which are retained but are neither helpful nor harmful. Similarly, the evolution of some traits which do not present a clear advantage for its members (say, a culture’s music) is likely just the product of random chance.

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