a writer's blog

Yes, Virginia, There Is a Reality Out There!

creed of reason

creed of reason

But the closest we can come to this reality is to tell about it our best & brightest stories.

Don’t get me wrong: we know a freaking awesome lot about what’s “out there,” thanks to science and the scientific method. And reality most certainly would object to being cast as a cultural construct. Actually, it does object! Left and right and every day. Just read the newspapers. No—to say that we can only tell stories about reality isn’t the same as to say that reality is a story. It certainly is not.

Let me explain.

There is a scientific theory which is called “Radical Constructivism,” a concept within the field of constructivist epistemology. It was primarily developed in Germany, as »Radikaler Konstruktivismus,« based on mathematical models and cybernetic architectures, especially on research done by Humberto Maturana & Franciso Varela and Heinz von Foerster, respectively. Since I’m too lazy to translate stuff from my library, here’s a brief description from Wikipedia:

Ernst von Glasersfeld is a prominent proponent of radical constructivism, which claims that knowledge is the self-organized cognitive process of the human brain. That is, the process of constructing knowledge regulates itself, and since knowledge is a construct rather than a compilation of empirical data, it is impossible to know the extent to which knowledge reflects an ontological reality.

I think from this quotation alone it is evident that radical constructivism is decidedly not your routine New Age nonsense about how reality is what we make of it. (Also, it has nothing to do with Deconstruction, which I have always tried, together with dangling prepositions, to be a responsible proponent of.) One of the underlying key concepts is Maturana and Varela’s work on autopoesis, which would take a bit too long to explain here, and von Foerster’s “Undifferentiated Encoding”:

The response of a nerve cell does not encode the physical nature of the agents that caused its response. Encoded is only “how much” at this point on my body, but not “what.” (von Foerster 1984)

All sensory input is encoded in exactly the same way; the input differs in its intensity, and how it winds up in different locations of the brain where the encoded input is not “decoded,” but from which that what we perceive as “sensations” is “constructed.” From scratch. By applying a system of rules we have acquired through evolution.

Thus, effectively, there is a reality out there, and there is a construct in our minds which corresponds in certain ways to what’s out there, but there is no direct access path from one to the other. In other words, we’re fumbling around in the dark. Or, to follow a metaphor which I think Glasersfeld came up with: we’re steering through the world like a ship in impenetrable fog, building a construct of what’s out there from what we have encountered so far. If all goes well: that doesn’t tell us anything about the world. Only when something does not happen the way we think it should, often in catastrophic ways, do we receive information and know it’s time to go back to our construct for revisions.

So would scientists be among the most powerful storytellers the world has ever seen? Yes, something in that direction. But what if the objections against radical constructivism, of which there are a few, are valid? Would I still call it “stories” if we had a more direct access to reality? I’d say yes.

Let me explain, again.

Science does not seek “Teh Truth.” Or to “Explain Teh World.” What science does, basically, is building models and test them against what’s out there—namely, reality. If the model holds, we may know a little bit more about how reality works. But it’s still inferred knowledge. The model, of course, is a kind of story. Only, these stories are usually told in languages few people can understand, even if for excellent reasons.

This kind of storytelling, with some differences I’ll come to in a minute, is what all human primates do. It’s not only scientists who build models to learn something about reality: we all build models in our heads about how the world works, too, and we do it all the time. And these models, or stories, we commence to tell each other, and usually in languages that are, alas, much more fuzzy and full of ambiguity and bursting at the seams with metaphors, but are understood by vastly more people than just modelbuilding scientists plus a lucky few.

Now why has it happened, especially in our modern, postmodern, and post-postmodern age, successively, that these stories ever more violently collided?

Most of the blame goes to both factions’ fringe positions. On one side, there’s the Grand Quackdom of New Age Woo Meisters who rip scientific models out of their environment and translate them into all kinds of bizarre nonsense. On the other side, there’s the Grand Rabid Inquisition of the Purifex Maximus of Science whose members are as unable to explain their research to the laypeople as they are outraged at every unsanctioned use of scientific models in what might be called the world of you and me.

Good riddance to both.

Then come all the gray zones. And then the reasonable center. Which, on the one hand, would be those scientists who try to translate their models a.k.a. stories about the world into common knowledge, and, on the other, all-we-people who take these bits and pieces and translate them into our own models a.k.a. stories about the world. Historically, “science” in the sense of exploring what’s out there by employing the scientific method hasn’t been around for too long, but since recorded time the stories of those who tried to find out what the world is and the stories of those who lived in it have, well, strongly correlated. In recent times: think about Newton, Laplace, and the mechanistic worldview. Think about Einstein and Relativism. Think about Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Bohr, and Quantum fuzziness. Science always has provided master narratives for our zeitgeist narratives, and our zeitgeist narratives have informed our personal stories about the world, ourselves, and “I.”

And what’s wrong with that! We all are story tellers and model builders, after all. We can’t be anything else.

But that doesn’t mean that everyone can write, which is a different story altogether.


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