Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Social Facts and Social Agreements

Ton Zijlstra wrote:

That George Bush is the US President, or Beatrix of Orange-Nassau is the Queen of the Netherlands is a social fact not an objective one. It is something we merely generally agree upon to be true (even those opposing monarchy, or those thinking Bush never beat Al Gore). We all behave like it is true. If we would stop that, it would indeed seize to be true.
Money systems, number and measures systems, religious belief systems etc. are social facts too. They're designed. They can be changed by groups simply stopping to accept them. Social facts are the emperor's new clothes. Social facts are the product of multi-subjectivity. We pretend that social facts are objective facts.

I would argue otherwise. That George W. Bush is the US President is a social agreement (between George W. Bush and people of USA) via a mechanism called election. USA people has agreed to give George W. Bush, until the next election, the power to execute some rights on behalf of the people.

Measurement units are also social agreements, negotiated agreements among international standards bodies in order to smooth the transactions of trade.

These social agreements can change, in fact they do change. However, these social agreements ARE not facts.

The statement "Jeanny is my wife" is a fact, a social fact. We married, in front of our parents, relatives, friends and so on. Of course, on the other hand, it is also a social agreement. If someday in the future, we get devoiced. The fact that she was my wife for these years remain as a fact and is true. The agreement part has changed!

With this, objectivity is NOT multi-subjectivity.

The statement "the earth is round" is a fact until proven wrong by scientific evidence. It is NOT negotiated among people inhibiting on Earth. Fact can be proven wrong and get revised. However, facts do not require social agreement to establish its validity. It is NOT multi-subjectivity.


Ton said...

hi Albert,
The point I am trying to make is that social facts are agreements. We just often treat them as objective fact.

Your point on marriage. You being married is not a fact either but an agreement, as the institute marriage in general is an agreement. You two being treated as married makes it a social fact, not the ritual itself. Under Dutch law my wife (sic) and I are treated as married, not because we are, but because we have been together long enough for the Dutch law to treat us as if we were married. If you would divorce, that everybody agreed you were married at some point would still be a fact. The marriage itself would be an agreement that got cancelled.

As to the world being round. The shape of the earth is an objective fact. The way we perceive it is however also a social agreement. The ancient Greeks saw it as round, even mathematically proved it to be round. Later, much of Christianity agreed it was flat and 'proved' it for themselves, treating anything else as heresy. So it is not scientific theory that entirely shapes what is seen as fact. It is what the general populace accepts and treats as facts.

Social facts, imo, are agreements we treat as objective facts. In those instances what we call objectivity is really multi-subjectivity. So maybe the word social fact we can do without and replace it with agreement, but it helped me to seperate it from objective facts to which the relevant aspects of multi-subjectivity in filtering information and pattern detection do not apply.



Administrator: Albert Ip said...

Hi Tor,

Thank you for responding so quickly.

I believe we can agree that "social fact" is a term that we can do without. We shall use "social agreement" instead. :-)

re: marriage. It is interesting! The way I see it is that "Jeanny and I are living together and have baby" is a fact irrespective of how the society may treat us. The social agreement part is that the law gives us some rights when we interact with other people as a couple. Again, it is the overloading of meaning of the term "marriage" is causing the problem.

Objective fact, such as "Earth is round" does not link to belief of the people. It is an objective fact.

I believe that we live in a world in which the environment will respond to our similar actions in the similar way. That is the basic of us being able to build a common understanding of the world around us. Language itself is, no doubt, socially constructed. Expression is agreed when we see similar responses from the environment AND agree to use that expression (a sound, a gesture, a word, a verb or a phrase or a sentence) to describe it. Of course, language evolves into much more complicated and expressive form beyond just the description of natural responses to our actions. However, if there is no consistent objective facts (to support the base of the language), we will not be able to communicate.

Objective facts get revised as we have more understanding of the circumstances. How we interpret the objective facts is social agreement, and some may choose to disagree. "Christianity agreed it was flat and 'proved' it for themselves" does not alter the shape of Earth. In fact for a lot of purposes, e.g. walking, it is perfectly understandable to treat Earth as flat, albeit we may point out their short-sightedness or laugh at the stupidity. Treating the Earth as flat certainly does not help shipping nor flying.

If you throw an apple up, it will fall back. If I throw an apple up, it will also fall back. Our environment is providing a consistent response to our actions. This is the base of objective fact. Such fact does not require our agreement. The interpretation, e.g. gravitation, is a model and people may or may not agree.

Newton's law, quantum mechanics, relativity are models. They are NOT fact. They are tools for us to predict the response of our world we all live in.

One of the most important principle in science is "repeatability". If I do an experiment, and if you do the same experiment - under the same conditions, they should produce the same result. These are objective facts. Scientists continuously seek to test the models (or theories) against objective facts. If a fact which a theory cannot fully "explain" is found, scientists do not argue to change the fact. (Of course, it is necessary to establish the fact first, by repeating the experiment!) Scientists argue to change the model or theory.

Unfortunately, natural human language is loaded (overloaded). There is no distinction (from a linguistic sense) to distinguish among objective facts, models/theories, social agreements and fictions. People are generally not paying special attention between what is a fact, what is an agreement, what is a model (theory) for predicting objective facts and what is fictional.

Introducing the notion of "multi-subjectivity" does not help in filtering out information. I would rather get back to the basic. When information is represented by language, we have but to tackle the overloading nature of natural language.