Debate on Constructivism
caveblogem, author of the excellent blog Pretty Good on Paper has agreed to a discussion of Constructivism. He has published his first post on the topic and I will shortly reply. I will identify my posts on the topic by giving them the titles Debate on Constructivism 1, Debate on Constructivism 2, etc.
Before getting into the debate, I felt I should outline my own position. I have made a separate post of this – which you are now reading – to avoid cluttering up my first contribution to the debate. It will be interesting to see whether I modify my views.
Please note that this is not a private conversation: all are invited to comment on the posts on either blog.
In this brief outline of my position on what we might call “the real world” I will avoid using words such as “reality” and “truth” as these pose problems of their own: individual thinkers may give them very different definitions. While the term “the real world” (or simply “the world” for short) is rather vague, I think most readers will have an intuitive grasp of what I mean by it.
I believe (and I use the word “believe” advisedly) that there is a real world which exists independently of the human mind (or any other kind of mind) and that its existence and nature in no manner depend on our knowledge or understanding of them. In that sense, I am what might be called a “scientific realist” and I do indeed believe that it is science that provides our most accurate description of the physical world.
I am aware that some thinkers consider it a problem that we obtain our knowledge through the senses and the rational faculty of the brain and that we do not have “direct” knowledge of the world. In the first place, we are stuck with this situation and just have to get on with it. In the second, I don’t know what this “direct” knowledge is supposed to be and I don’t think anyone else does, either.
In order for there to be understanding of the world, there has to be an organ of understanding, in our case the human brain and its faculties (“the mind” for short). Isn’t that what “understanding” and “knowledge” are: what my brain makes of the world that it detects around it? That does not mean that we can make of the world what we will or that any explanation is as good as any other. We do possess the ability to check our theories against experience and to see whether they are adequate. If they are not adequate we should think again and find a better explanation.
If anyone claims that our knowledge of the world is merely a construct of the mind, an amenable fiction, or that any explanation of the world is as good as any other – for example that the stories of revealed religion are as good as the explanations of science – then I would suggest they consider technology. The fact that our understanding of the world that we have derived from science has been put to use in medicine, space travel, communications, and an endless list of applications proves that we do possess real knowledge of the world. Your mobile doesn’t work because you imagine it does: it works because the knowledge of the world that went into its production accurately represents the world.