It is astonishing how sure we can be of our opinions. We very often act as if there was no other way to see the situation, as if there was no alternative – maybe equally valid belief. Interestingly, an aspect of positive psychology, the confidence-boosting side, is actively worsening this state of people being able to doubt themselves and their believes.
Even more astonishing however, is that confronted with facts and solid arguments to the contrary, the position of a supporter is only likely to get more entrenched – this is called the “backfire effect”. A related phenomenon is that the exact same experience might be seen or interpreted very differently by two individuals – in general confirming the beliefs they already hold, which is called “Confirmation Bias”.
Indeed, the opinions we have are generally not made up out of thin air but we believe them to be grounded in something or other. It is only troubling to find that these sources of information are far too often extremely selective and only seldomly genuinely broad and balanced.
Some pundits are talking about a “fact free political era” which Brexit and Trump have created. They state that they are shocked to see that there are apparently millions of people that believe that their country is short of a collapsing, when it is still the most powerful country on earth. This is precisely why I think that people have to get a better picture of understanding where their truths come from – also the democrats.
Where Knowledge Comes From
“How do you know that?” In practical terms we answer such a question by referencing to a source of information or knowledge that we trust. We say “I have read it this book” or “I have seen it by myself”. These different sources we generally attach differing reliability to. There is for example a great difference in credibility between saying that something has been observed by oneself or that another person has related it to you. Equally there is a whole different layer of prestige if the source of knowledge is a prestigious University or a famous intellectual.
Most people however will not look into this deeper layer and really investigate the reliability or understand its relative significance. In most discussions where a reference of a source is requested whatever answer is given does suffice. Additionally, while we sometimes remember or tacitly connect a certain knowledge to something, the source of the information is generally forgotten. This is of huge benefit to right-wing media which spreads rumors, which we could at first reject but after being confronted with the same thing again, tacitly accept as a given, also because the source of this knowledge has been forgotten.
A Short History of Epistomology
On an absolute level however, the question of how do you know is addressed by epistemology, which is a philosophical field. This field has really only gotten serious when the shift from dogma to philosophical inquiry and scientific observation happened. The major contestant in the ensuing controversy were the Empiricists under Hume and Locke and the Rationalists under Spinoza and Descartes.
The former were arguing that all knowledge was only due to experience and that this was the truth which was to be contended with. The issues connected with this are that things not always are what they seem to be. The most famous and always referred to evidence of this is optical illusions. For me personally that is misleading because it creates the picture that there are such illusions in everything. We can as easily be deceived by our ears and smell. Maybe however we judge them as inherently less accurate and therfore leave them on the side.
The latter maintained that only rational reflection and logical dissection could really get one to the truth. In connection with this did Descartes develop his famous “Deus Malignus” thought experiment. He argued that there could be a demon who deceives our perceptions at all times. An obvious shortcoming to this is however the idea of where these inputs that then can rationally be operated on come from. After all even a rationalist has at one point to go beyond his comfort zone of the”Cogito ergo sum”.
This discussion is now agreed upon to have been come to a close when Kant proposed his Critical Philosophy, which maintains that first need experiential input which we then need to reflect on critically. The much touted “critical thinking” most likely has been named in connection with this. Here the Hegelian synthesis between the two opposing ideas is established – and comes to a premature close. This will be the general close of the discussion in high-school philosophy.
Interestingly, in “The Art of Thinking Clearly” by Rolf Dobelli many mental fallacies are pointed out, which similarly to the optical illusions make our mental perceptions skewed. It is therefore I would claim permissible to say that the depiction of the mental realm as completely devoid of inaccuracies that our perceptions are is grossly exaggerated.
Thus criticism is not as such without possible faults either. Furthermore, this methodology is lacking a critical element namely how this truth is then actually applied and how it manifests in the mind. It is thus that I would formulate the significance of Constructivism.
It could be seen as a framework in which truth or knowledge functions, rather than as a completely separate epistemological school. (As has been pointed out to me long ago, it is technically not counted as such because it does not actually maintain that there is a reality or a method of inquiring about reality.)
Constructivism maintains, in broad terms, that what we call reality is actually deeply relative, ie. whatever we believe is reality is a construct of the mind. There is an interpretation going on of what we perceive and we embed this into our understanding of the world, which is nonetheless not the world itself – but our viewpoint of it.
This realization comes when we understand how our biases, differences of perception, viewpoint-relevant character traits (such as our wish to pacify or inquire) are understood as glasses through which we perceive the world. That concepts are constructs is can be illustrated by inconsistencies between pictures that we have of ourselves, what a good person is or what honor is, and that of the next person.
Also it must be maintained that there are overarching concepts between groups, such as conspiracy theorists or even the worldviews of rappers in their ‘hoods. These are a collective construct of which the world is full of. A very powerful collective construct is money, as Yufal Harari has pointed out in his TED-talk.
The concrete framework in time in which this plays out in practice is that we tell ourselves stories about what is going on. We fit what we understand into narratives, which are generally of an archetypical nature: There is some enemy which needs to be overcome, a prize or a goal that is all that matters, an epic struggle between contestants, etc. These are of course only the typical form which the narratives take, especially when they are not properly reflected upon. That is to say that our overall process of things is generally incorporated or tacitly depicted as a simple story of a fight between good and evil or right and wrong. The right and the good generally being oneself, while the evil and the wrong being the person in front of one.
A powerful example of narratives has been the presidential election in the US, which has already been told in the opening paragraph. Half of the voters of both political parties in this contested US presidential election are certain that the other candidate would spell ruin and misery for the country – and potentially for the rest of the world.
Taking now Constructivism as an essential piece that explains how truth actually works in the mind, there is nonetheless the need to alter what the “truth generating” system is that is outside of the mind. The closest approximation to this, and what seems to me to be completely compatible with Constructivism is Experentialism.
Constructivism in some formulation, after all would allow for a certain kind of a certain kind of objective or transcendental truth. One could argue that we might think in constructs but that these only blur or hide a real truth that is “out there”. This is exactly the part where Experentialism comes into play.
This school of thought has been formulated in “Metaphors We Live By” by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson and maintains that there is no actual truth “out there” in the world but rather all truth is embodied and imaginative. In contrast to Kant’s transcendental truth and Plato’s ideas that span everything, Experentialism claims that these concepts are based on the biological human body and brought forth by the mind.
Experentialism can be seen as the psycholinguistic underpinning of Constructivism as it explains it on the level of categories and concepts. Perceived reality on the level of categories is not out there but made up by humans – they are human categories after all and as such grounded in human experience. A more detailed discussion of how this process of conceptualization could actually work can be read in point 2.5 of this paper.
What is important to point out, both for Experentialism as well as Constructivism, is that maintaining the position that perceived reality is constructed and that there is no reality out there thus not exclude the possibility of a “reality out there”. In that sense not all is relative or subjective and can be taken to be somewhat true.
For Experientialist will not allow and the traditional epistomological school of objectivism share a common ground, called basic realism, which demands, among other aspects, the following: They maintain “the existence of a real world, both external to human beings and including the reality of human experience [as well as] the existence of stable knowledge of the external world” through the scientific process. [page 5 – Women, Fire and Dangerous Things by George Lakoff]
Thinking about epistemology is neither only a philosophical exercise nor a means of self-investigation. It has considerable consequences to one of the, if not the most important, things that personal and professional effort is aiming towards: Happiness. Our happiness is undoubtedly connected to, if not outright dependent on the things which happen around us. However, epistemologically it is more correct to say that happiness is connected to or dependent on the way we experience the outside world and how we make sense of this experience.
Reflections on constructivism and the way we gain our knowledge can make us aware of the narratives that we tell ourselves about who we are, what the trajectory of the world is right now and what the glance from that person who just passed one meant. It is in a way a reflectory tool to take a step back and try to figure out if what I have just thought is a simplistic conception of things and whether I need a more complex one.
Thus on the individual level practical constructivism is all about the narratives we tell ourselves about who we are or whether we are happy, or should be. As this mental construct is extremely consequential to the way future events happen. For, our conceptions determine or at least shape our (re)actions. Whereas on the societal or human scale it is important for considerations of how other people can become happy.
Going into Action
Being aware of the constructivist nature of how we make sense of the world however, we also have to realize that from the several truths that there are we can go on to devise models of action. After all, we do not (always – and certainly not everybody) try to understand the world as an end in itself.
Knowledge is power, in other words, knowledge can help us make better informed decisions. Thus, knowledge in itself is not power but having figured out how to best put knowledge into application that is power. Thus it is not only about the knowledge in itself but also about what we do with it. We want knowledge because it can help us to operate in the world and what is so critical to understand is that, according to constructivism, there are several kinds of understanding – even from the same data-set and even within a person.
For example person might seem distressed to one person but angry to another. The gap between two possible distinct reactions to this input will make a significant difference. All of these ways of seeing it are accurate, or at least accurate in varying degrees.
Correctness of Models
What is then the next insight is that sometimes, and maybe quite often, it is best not to take the most accurate depiction one can muster to devise a course of action based on it. Thinking of all the different aspects of an issues might end up hindering and preventing the view on the core one. Nevertheless, it is essential not to oversimplify the thing at hand.
After all, thought is always an abstraction and a simplification of what is going on. Our brains are not able to handle more and thus only try to detect the patterns that exist. Indeed the most accurate model would be the thing itself which is not particularly useful to us. It is only important to not get confused with the patterns and to correctly identify the most important ones.
Basically it comes down to what purpose the said knowledge shall serve and how much time one has. After that the maxim, “as simple as can be, but complex enough”, applies. This framework for looking at an issue maintains that something is correct if it is actionable and if it serves a purpose. What the purpose actually is of course is embedded within the construct or narrative one has conjured up before. As this purpose is what it all shall lead to, it is important that it has well been thought over – otherwise this model will not be worth much.
A powerful way to think about this is that we can never gain a 100% accurate model of the world outside, which would not even be desirable. This exact accuracy can be thought of as the amplitude in a mathematical function – it can never be touched. On the other hand just by naming a concept we already have more than 0 complexity. In between the two extremes we can come up with models.
To find the “right” model we have to determine how much complexity is appropriate to the situation. For example is it important in the positive discourse on Trump and Brexit to go beyond the mere notion that these voters are somehow stupid, justified by their lesser average level of education, and include the anti-establishment sentiments that are (justifiably) heartly felt within the population. A more accurate model might add more pieces to the puzzle.
What is important however, is that it remains actionable which means that only the most critical aspects are part of the picture. It is no use to identify each voters intentions nor the specific problems in one county. The big pattern most be grasped and yet it must not become overloaden with information which only help to confuse. The question thus is, where along this function of complexity do we need to place our model?
How to Deal with Constructed Reality
What has been discussed until now are only static ideas and concepts to understand reality. They are in themselves however not a guideline for how to deal with it. A sequence of action which is informed by a construct understanding might then look something like the following:
- Identify the issue
- Learn about it through different sources
- Check the reliability and the source of knowledge
- Understand the different perspectives
- Follow the narratives that they follow from
- Take a step back and realize the complexity
- Check for your own aspirations and wishes
- Come up with a “just right” model of the issue
- Find a suitable way of action
- Act on it, continually consulting the model
This is of course an ideal way of looking at an issue and cannot be applied all the time. However, it can on the one hand be used as a guideline for the really important issues and on the other hand be rough sketch that can overall be applied to almost any issue.
Useful Lessons from other Sources
Furthermore I have found what Isaac Lidsky, a blind CEO of a construction company, had to say about living with construct-awareness in his TED-talk very useful. Some of them might be a bit general but they are very powerful, especially in the light of dealing with a mentally-created reality :
- You are the creator of your reality!
- Recognize your assumptions and see beyond your fears!
- Hold yourself accountable for what you do!
- Harness your internal strength, silence your internal critic!
- Accept your strengths and weaknesses!
- Open your heart to the bountiful blessings – all of them!
Also Jamie Smart’s book “Clarity” seems to me to be pointing into the direction of trying to help people to operate while construct aware. It talk extensively about how we all too often take emotions and concepts about other people as absolute. By making us take a step back, he surfaces, that these emotions are not actually somehow “out there” and arising without our influence but that they are actually created by ourselves as part of a constructed reality.
A Deeper Structure
These observations above have seemed obvious to me for a long time now, while certain implications of it have developed during this time. One of the consequences of constructivism, in fact one that confused me from the beginning was whether there actually is something like a reality underneath our constructs.
Now, the scientific process make me believe that there is a reality. Most certainly there is a physical one on which we can do experiments which will lead to the same outcome. In this way I have to agree with Experentialism – there certainly is an underlying thing one can get at through inquiry.
The formulations used so far, and generally also what I have read from Experentialism and similar schools of thought is that there are unequivocal things, especially in physics and chemistry, that are like they are – period. What I have started to wonder however is whether there is actually something like a hidden paradigm or a hidden structure that reveals itself in several forms and not so exactly as in the hard sciences.
To me such a hidden structure is the developmental stages through which human beings and also adults pass. These stages have proven to be close to identical, or at least revealing certain paradigms, which have been rigorously tested throughout cultures and generations. A detailed account can be found here.
This idea of an actual hidden cosmological structure takes its legitimacy from “Basic Realism” that has been mentioned beforehand. Structures like these point to what a hidden structure in the world. The process of identifying this structure is one of trial and error and of ever closer and ever more detailed approximation. A stance might be that this actual physical reality is too tacit to come to concretely.
The most convincing approximation to date, to me, has been in Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory, of which the aformentioned Developmental Stages is a part. This model itself and the models and theories that have been developed through it are most concrete and well-informed non-physically evident structure in existence that I have come upon.
This contemplation springs forth from the desire to understand what existence is all about – the desire to understand life. Interestingly, going really deep on this issue might not be very helpful to one’s actual day to day reality. This has been a striking insight to me, to see how unconnected living a rich and purposeful life might actually be from understand the structures that are embedded within it. And furthermore how our personal human truths about our lives might actually be very far from this closest approximation to the workings of the cosmos.
All of these models of approximation concepts have relative truth not absolute one. What is important for me to point out is that I do not think that even that hidden structure is the absolute truth in that sense. It is a different layer. Just like depicted in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The hidden structure is just a model which we are converging to which, as I have pointed out, might have little to do, with actionable truths that we maintain ourselves.
All in all, the model of truth that has been laid out here runs as follows:
- What we believe to be reality is a anthropomorphic mental construct of which everybody has his or her own.
- We have to be sure of our believes to operate in the world – but must never forget that they are relative and can, and should be improved upon.
- There is no objective truth outside. However, there can may be a “basic reality”.
- There are ways to deal with this understanding effectively, among others taking as truth what is most useful.
- There could be a higher hidden structure in the world nonetheless.
To conclude, even this model is only as “correct” as it is helpful. And for plenty of people it might not prove to be. Nonetheless, it is the best approximation to the hidden structure that I have been able to muster.