Wednesday, July 25, 2018

There Really Are "Alternative Facts"

This article was prompted by the death of Peter Berger a year ago. Berger was not only a world-renowned sociologist but also a notable lay Lutheran theologian. He is best known for The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (1966), which he co-authored with Thomas Luckmann.
A Bit about Berger
Born in Vienna, Austria, in 1929, Berger immigrated with his family to the U.S. when he was 17. Although he attended a Lutheran seminary, he ended up becoming a sociologist rather than a minister. 
In 1981 Berger began teaching at Boston University and was the founding director of BU’s Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs from 1985 until his retirement in 2009.
An early and vocal opponent of the “God is dead” movement in the 1960s, Berger was much appreciated by evangelical Christians, as is attested to in this Christianity Today article posted two days after his death on June 27, 2017.
A Bit about Plausibility Structures
According to Berger (and Luckmann), knowledge—and people’s conceptions/beliefs of what reality is—is socially constructed.
There is an objective and a subjective aspect to reality, and the society in which one lives, one’s culture or subculture, by necessity interprets/constructs objective reality subjectively. That interpretation/construction forms one’s plausibility structure.
Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (1989)
“Plausible” is an adjective that means “seeming reasonable or probable.” Synonyms include such terms as “believable,” “credible,” “logical,” and “rational.” 
All interpretations of reality are not equally plausible, of course. There is, for example, pronounced differences between what is considered plausible by the dominant “white” culture in the U.S. and by the traditional culture of American Indians.
And more and more there seem to be pronounced differences in the plausibility structures of devoted Democrats and fervent Republicans in this country.
Because of the distinctly different plausibility structures, there really are “alternative facts,”—for “facts” are only what the society one belongs to agrees upon as being real or true.
Why Is This Important?
Consider a couple of examples.
Most Christians believe that God created the world and that at least some of the miracles as reported in the Bible, especially the Resurrection, are true. For those of us who grew up in the church and with belief in the message of the Bible, Creation and Resurrection are “facts” (although even among Christians now those facts are not interpreted in exactly the same way).
But for those with a completely “scientific worldview,” that is, with a belief system that only accepts that which can be proved by the scientific method, the creation of the universe by God and miracles cannot be factually true. Their plausibility structure rules out all “supranatural” causes.
Or, consider the matters of abortion and homosexual activity. If one’s plausibility structure holds it to be factually true that all abortion is murder of preborn humans and all homosexual activity as an abomination and a sin against God, then there must necessarily be ongoing opposition to abortion and such practices as same-sex marriage.
Consequently, those with that plausibility structure see Christians who are pro-choice (= pro-abortion in their understanding) and/or who affirm LGBT rights as having defective faith and perhaps as not being real Christians.
Moreover, with that worldview, there is no way one could vote for a political candidate who is pro-choice and/or who favors same-sex marriage. Such is just not plausible. (This matter is well described in this 7/21 Washington Post article.)

This article just scratches the surface of an extremely important topic, but perhaps it is becoming clear why it can truly be said that because of diversely different plausibility structures, there really are alternative facts.


  1. Thanks, Leroy, for writing about Peter Berger. I myself have tried to find ways of applying this kind of constructivism to biblical interpretation. It's not been particularly successful, but I've tried. The real crux of his work (along with the early contributions of Thomas Luckmann) to me, revolves around the challenge of how we behave once we know and understand Berger's thesis. I would say there are not alternative facts (factuality is very difficult to establish), but there are are always options before us, growing from the pluralism of perspectives and points of view. In community(ies) we engage with each other to determine the best options for our communities, at whatever level we experience and engage them.

  2. Thanks, HPS, for your comments (and I am sorry to say I can't remember who you are by just those initials),

    Yes, it is certainly true that factuality is very difficult to establish, but I am using the term in the broad sense -- or in the simple sense as defined by Merriam-Webster: "a true piece of information." Of course, that definition sort of begs the question, for how do we determine what is true?

    Still, since people with opposing worldviews, or even political viewpoints, consider conflicting pieces of information to be true, there are, in that sense, alternative facts.

    As to applying this to biblical interpretation, I ran across references to Berger and his ideas in N.T. Wright's book "The New Testament and the People of God" (1992). See, for example, sections titled "Towards Critical Religion" in Chapter 2 and "Worldviews and Theology" in Chapter 5.

  3. Because of the self-imposed 600-word limit to my blog articles, I did not have space to note that this article is closely related to "Why Do We Believe What We Believe," my blog article posted on June 15, 2014. (Here is the link to that article: ). If you are particularly interested in this present article, please read (again) the 2014 article.

  4. Local Thinking Friend Temp Sparkman sent me the following email a few minutes ago:

    "I’m resisting the notion that there can be alternative ‘facts.’ What happens if you replace ‘fact’ with ‘belief, ‘opinion,’ or ‘conviction?’

    "What if two persons are arguing over whether there was a holocaust? One shows pictures, and gives personal accounts of the horror, the other holds that it didn’t happen. The first asks, 'I showed you evidence, do you have any evidence that it didn’t happen?' The second is left to claim he doesn’t accept the accounts. Isn’t he simply expressing a belief, opinion, or conviction?

    "Isn’t that what Berger (above) suggested?

  5. Thanks, Temp, for reading and responding to today's new blog article.

    Of course we all know that there are alternative (conflicting, opposing) beliefs, opinions, or convictions. But some of those beliefs are so strong that they are considered factual.

    When there is overwhelming evidence for historical events, such as the Holocaust, there is not much room for claiming that there are alternative facts in such cases. Those whose plausibility structure does not allow them to accept the historical evidence for something such as the Holocaust are mostly considered "kooks" by society as a whole.

    But what about this: is it a fact that murder is wrong -- or is that just a belief or an opinion? Surely most people would say that it is a fact that murder being wrong, not just a belief or an opinion.

    But what about killing people in war? Those who are pacifists, such as I am, say that killing people in war is murder and thus wrong. But those who affirm war in some circumstances have to say that, in fact, killing/murder is not wrong when one is fighting to protect one's country or whatever. In this case, there seems to be alternative facts.

    And that was where I was coming from in using abortion as an example. For those who believe, in fact, that murder is wrong and that, in fact, human life begins at conception, then abortion must, in fact, be considered wrong and opposed as society generally opposes murder (except in the case of war, or self-defense, etc.).

    Those who are pro-choice, however, think that in fact women should have the right to decide whether or not to carry an unintended and unwanted fetus to the time of birth and that, in fact, the state does not have the right to force a woman to carry an unintended and unwanted fetus for nine months and to the time of birth.

    There is clearly factuality about whether a woman is pregnant or not. There cannot be alternative facts about that. But there are alternative facts that determine whether that pregnancy can be terminated. Those who are "pro-life" think that in fact willfully terminating a pregnancy is murder. Those who are pro-life are sure that (usually) when certain conditions are met, in fact, a woman has the right to choose to terminate a pregnancy and should be supported in her decision. So this is an area where, it seems to me, that there are alternative facts.

  6. Here are thoughtful comments from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for some great comments.

    "I can certainly agree that we all live within frameworks of plausibility structures, although I am not so sure that there are actually valid 'alternative facts.' Objective facts are based on convincing evidence, but often we assume as facts things or events that lack sufficient evidence, or we choose to ignore evidence that runs counter to our plausibility structures or our values. These are the alternative 'facts.'

    "So while alternative facts may lack objective validity, alternative values and alternative worldviews are another matter. A worldview can be shaped, although not necessarily proven, by objective facts, but values, whether cultural, moral, or political, are based on other factors such as our emotions and desires.

    "Humans are very complex creatures and we live in a very complex world; there is so much we do not know. So any plausibility structure, even for the most ardent proponent of a 'scientific' worldview, is necessarily based to some extent on assumptions and emotions. We simply do not have all of the facts.

    "Peace (a value, but, unfortunately, not a fact)"

    1. Thanks, Eric, for your comments, helpful and thoughtful as usual.

      I keep thinking about whether it is a fact that murder is wrong. If that is only an opinion rather than a fact, then some murderers are executed by the state based on a common opinion about murder rather than it being factually true that murder is wrong.

      Of course, there are different kinds of facts. Often we talk about "scientific facts." (Of course, even scientific facts can and do change; for example, there was a time when it was a scientific fact that atoms could not be split.)

      Or, we talk about "historical facts," events that are considered true because of the evidence supporting the actuality of those events. (Of course, there have been many historical revisions--some unjustified but others quite properly justified.)

      But are there ethical or moral facts? Or are all supposed immoral or unethical acts just a matter of opinion or value judgments? Again, is it a fact that murder--or incest, or rape, or slavery, or malicious lying, etc, etc.--is wrong, or is that "merely" an opinion based on one's, or a particular society's, worldview?

    2. Here is Eric's brief reply to my response to his comments:

      "Thanks, Leroy, for your wise response.

      "I was using the term 'fact' in an empirical sense since we so often hear about 'alternative facts' that are actually false (ie., can be empirically refuted). I should have probably referred to just cultural and political values since I do believe in certain absolute moral truths or facts."

  7. Truth Matters

    Among the important historical beliefs
    That underlying Vatican II
    Are that Jewish ritual murder is false
    And the Jewish holocaust is true.