Reifications And Teleology

Jay Hanson, 1/11/2016

The human mind evolved to believe in [reifications]... Acceptance of the supernatural conveyed a great advantage throughout prehistory, when the brain was evolving. Thus is in sharp contrast to biology which was developed as a product of the modern age and is not underwritten by genetic algorithms.
– E.O. Wilson

“Reification” is the apprehension of man's ideas as if they were something other than his own ideas, such as physical objects, facts of nature, universal laws, or manifestations of divine will. Reification implies that man is capable of forgetting his own authorship of the human world.

Understanding “reification” and “teleology” are obvious prerequisites to mitigating our present quandary. But as near as I can tell, virtually unexamined in light of today's many planet-wide crises.

A writer must define key terms so his readers can understand what he writes. Therefore, I am going to employ and define two key terms when discussing real-world human behavior: “reification” and “teleology.”

We are not discussing the words themselves, we are discussing the real-world human behavior of reification and teleology – as I am defining them below.

Both reification and teleology are products of our physical thought process. They just feel natural when we use them. However, if we wish to understand the world around us, these are actually errors of thinking and lie near the center of today's many planet-wide crises.

“Reification” and “teleology” are two of the most important reasons why we are unable to solve the recurring social problem of overshoot followed by collapse. We do not have natural error-detection circuits to warn us when we make the errors of reification and teleology, so we will spend as much time as required to understand this behavior. The definition of reification we will use in our present discussions is:

REIFICATION: The fallacy of treating something that does not exist (e.g., an angel) as a concrete thing (e.g., a real person). In short, the error of treating a “nothing” as a “thing.”

A “thing” is matter and/or energy than can theoretically be measured (verb). Reifications are not about the process of creating a thought. Thoughts are always caused by real things (neurons, neurotransmitters, etc.).

Reifications are the objects thought. For example, if I say that my “guardian angel” saved me from an injury, then the “angel” that I invented is a reification. Moreover, reifications are frequently used with “teleology.”

TELEOLOGY: Is to describe human behavior in terms of its goal or end state.

For example, consider the following exchange:

The first person: “Why did you go to the store?”

The second person: “I went to get a loaf of bread.” (This is teleology.)

Here Gowdy demonstrates the use of a reified and teleological “Nash equilibrium.” Meaningless explanations like this are the essence of social science:

 “In a classic experiment, Harper (1982) tested the ability of a flock of ducks to achieve a stable Nash equilibrium when fed balls of bread.”  — J. M. Gowdy, 2007

The “prisoner’s dilemma” is another example of reification and teleology:

In game theory, a situation in which two identical players each have two options whose outcome depends crucially on the simultaneous choice made by the other, often formulated in terms of two prisoners separately deciding whether to confess to a crime.

Social Science is based on reifications and teleology. See

Social scientists first invent (reify) a map, then forget they invented the map, and finally spend the rest of their careers attempting to discover what the map means.

The map is not the territory. – Alfred Korzybski

For reification in economics, see: In 1948 Milton Friedman invented what has become the greatest reification in the history of social science!