Debate on Constructivism 1

This is my reply to caveblogem‘s first post on Radical Constructivism (RC). Interested readers should refer to that post if they want to keep up with the discussion and, as I hope they will, comment in their turn.

As a preliminary, I would say that your reaction to the historiography professor’s question was correct: the alternatives he posed did not exhaust the possibilities. This illustrates the point that in any research it is important to ask the right questions. In fact, designing the right questions is the most crucial part of the work: ask any opinion pollster.

However, the incident does raise another point that has significance for the rest of the discussion. This is the need to distinguish between opinion and fact. I do not believe that history shows evidence of progression, but that is my opinion. The “progressive historian” quoted by your professor held the opposite opinion but although he sought to interpret history in support of his opinion, do we have any reason to suspect his treatment of historical fact? If he was an honest historian (as no doubt he was), then the facts of history that he quoted would be the same as the facts of history quoted by any other honest historian. The difference would lie in the meaning that he saw in those facts.

As human beings, we regard meaning and related concepts like value as supremely important. Philosophers spend their working lives discussing the meaning and the value of things. The fact remains, however, that the meaning I attach to objects in the real world colours how I see them; it doesn’t have any effect on the objects themselves. Moreover, I can change the meaning I assign to things and I will then see them “in a different light”. My view of them has changed but the objects remain the same. If I believe that history shows progression then that will colour how I see history; it will not determine history itself in any way. The world remains unchanged by my opinion.

The description of the pilot flying on instruments is interesting but what does it really tell us? When I was young, I suddenly had the perception that “I” was really a lump of grey matter enclosed in a box, called the skull, peeping out through two small windows. I felt quite claustrophobic for a moment. This was an analogous view to that of the pilot. How true is it, though?

Take away my sight, take away my hearing, take away all of my six senses. If you like, suspend my brain in the famous vat beloved of psychologist thought-experimenters. Now, what is there left of “me”? A fever of introspection, dreams, hallucinations, wild imaginings… In a very real sense “I” would have ceased to exist or at the least would have been severely truncated. The very fact that a Matrix-style “brain-in-a-vat” makes horrifying sense to us is precisely because the machine is asserted to supply an ersatz replacement for the sensations of the real world.

In other words, we are not like spiders in the midst of a lump of goo receiving information along lines of communication called “senses”, studying them to interpret a picture of the world, but are in the world, a fully functioning, totally interactive component of that world. I do not witness the world; I am the world.

More prosaically, the idea that we “only” receive our information about the outside world via the senses, while true, can be overstated. Put your hand on a hot plate and what happens? You move it away pretty damn quick. Are you aware of any “information” coming to you “via the senses” and “being interpreted by the brain”? Nope. You feel pain, you yell and you move, all in one. So much for seeing the world through a TV screen.

I too have heard that when NASA sends vehicles into the reaches of the solar system, they use Newton’s equations, not Einstein’s. What does this mean? Does it mean that the objective real world is inaccessible to us and so we can construct any world we like – or borrow Newton’s or Einstein’s – and use whichever we please because the world is merely what we think it is? No. Newton and Einstein are describing the same objective reality and when you look closely, you can see that this is so. Einstein had a few more facts at his disposal than Newton and found he needed a better theory than Newton’s to accommodate them.

Newton’s theory was pretty good, though, and it is only in extreme circumstances (in Mercury’s orbit close to the sun or in the extreme conditions in the vicinity of a black hole, for example) that there is any noticeable difference between them. Newton’s equations are simpler and they are good enough to get you to Mars and even further afield, so you might as well use them. The underlying point is worth repeating: Newton and Einstein are not describing different worlds; they are describing the same objective reality and we can see that this is so.

In a smaller, simpler context, the same principle applies when liberals and racists clash. Racists will see black people as intellectually inferior to white people and liberals will see them as equal but both acknowledge that there are this many black people and that many white people in the world. Both see the same real world but attach different meanings to it. Does that justify saying that they see “different worlds”? You may think so; I don’t. You and I see the same facts but we attach different meanings to them.

Buddhists are fond of declaring that what I call the world is nothing but delusion and, moreover, that “I” don’t even exist: the self is just another delusion. That’s fine for Buddhists and good luck to them but if the world is delusion, then someone is being deluded. And something is doing the deluding. There is therefore at least one thing that exists (a self-deluding consciousness, perhaps) and this is turn makes two: the self-deluding consciousness and its delusions. So something exists besides delusion.

In the same way, these multiple realities that the Radical Constructivist claims to see derive from something. We either have to believe that there really are multiple worlds coexisting in some complex way that is hard to imagine or that there is only one world and these different perceptions of the world are its projections. The question then is whether we can in any meaningful way know* this underlying “real world”, see the machinery supporting the delusion that each of us chooses as his particular world view.

It would be impertinent of me to say what Radical Constructivists think but I suspect they would answer the question in the negative. They entertain a WYSIWYG world view: how you see it is to all intents and purposes how it is. Maybe I am wrong about that; if so, you will tell me.

It will come as no surprise to hear that I answer the question positively. I say we can know the underlying real world, that our individual world views are merely convenient maps or models that we use to help us find our way around, as when a scientist with religious convictions uses Newton when sending a space probe to Mars, Einstein when writing a research paper on black holes and the Bible when discussing theology with his co-religionists. While naive people may believe that the model is the world, I think sophisticated people are fully aware of the difference between the world that seems and the world that is.


*Crucial to this, of course, is how we understand the word know. This is a huge topic in itself and we cannot go into it here.


About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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One Response to Debate on Constructivism 1

  1. Pingback: Introduction to Radical Constructivism II « Pretty Good on Paper

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