Introduction to Radical Constructivism V January 18, 2007Posted by caveblogem in Books, Constructivism, fiction, literature, narrative, Other, Philosophy, postmodern, postmodernism.
I’m going to take a slight digression before unleashing Postulate III to respond at length to a comment that anxiousmofo left on this thread. I do this partially because he has tried so diligently to answer a question that has puzzled me for years. He made me see some aspects to my position that I never quite understood (but also, of course, because he introduces the expression “intuition pump,” which I think is pretty funny and had not heard before). The question at hand is something like “why should one even concern one’s self with the question of whether or not there is some sort of real world out there?” This is the “question 2” which he refers to in his comment below (initially posted as comment #5 here). –WARNING: CONTAINS SPINOZA
To answer your question 2, here’s a thought experiment (or, more honestly, an intuition pump). Suppose that you have been happily married to someone you love for twenty years, a kind, intelligent, attractive person named Pat. One day, Pat’s doctor informs you that Pat is a philosophical zombie. Pat has no mental states at all, and only appears to love you in return. The hypothesis that Pat loves you and enjoys being with you and is committed to you is consistent with all the data and makes useful predictions about how Pat will act towards you; it just happens to be false. Wouldn’t knowing that make a difference to you? Similarly, if what I see as objects and people in the real world don’t actually exist, my life would be meaningless.
Of course, the notion that Pat (or anyone else) is a philosophical zombie is an extremely far-fetched and unparsimonious* notion, and so (I would argue) is the notion that the world we experience is unrelated to the real world, or the notion that there is no real world.
*Unparsimonious because it would require that there be at least two kinds of people in the world, those with mental states and those without.
An intriguing thought experiment/analogy. It reminds me of a passage in Neal Stephenson’s voluminous Baroque Cycle trilogy of novels, which I am going to reproduce here, it being relevant and hoping that since I worship his writing he will forgive me. A black man (Dappa) and a Puritan (Daniel) are meeting the Puritan’s nephew (Peer, who writes for a sort of newspaper) in a club/pub in London, circa 1715. The scene is one of the fifteen funniest in the 3000+ page work, but I will omit some of the funniest parts to focus on what is relevant to my response to your thought experiment.
“. . . Dappa was, at a very young age, taken aboard a ship by pirates as a sort of pet. And these pirates, being a polyglot group, amused themselves by training Dappa to spead twenty-five different languages fluently.”
“Twenty-five different languages! Peer exclaimed.
“Yes. Including English better than you, as you just saw.”
“But . . . he doesn’t actually understand any of them,” Peer said.
“No more than a parrot does, when it squawks out a demand for a cracker,” Daniel affirmed, then let out a squawk of his own as Dappa kicked him in the shin under the table.
“What a remarkable feat! You should exhibet him!”
“What do you think I am doing right now?”
“How was the weather yesterday?” Peer inquired of Dappa, in French.
“In the morning it was miserable and rainy,” Dappa returned. “After noon I thought it would clear but, alas, it was still overcast until nightfall. Only as I was getting ready for bed did I begin to see stars shining through gaps between clouds. Could I trouble you for a cracker?”
“I say, the French pirate who taught him that trick must have been an educated man!” Peer exclaimed. Then he got a look on his face as if he were thinking. Daniel had learned, in his almost seventy years, not to expect much of people who got such looks, because thinking really was something one ought to do all of the time. “One would suppose there would be no point in holding a conversation with a man who does not understand what he is saying. And yet he described yesterday’s weather better than I could! In fact, I think I’ll use his wording in tomorrow’s edition!” Again, now, the thoughtful look. “If he could relate other experiences-such as the tete-a-tete with the Duchess–as faithfully as he recalls the weather, it would make my interview with him ever so much easier. I had come prepared to do it all in grunts and sign languages!” And Peer gave a note-book in his hip-pocket and ominous pat.
“I suppose that whenever one speaks in the abstract–which is to say most of the time–what one is really doing is interacting with some sort of image that is held in the mind,” Dappa said. “For example, yesterday’s weather is not here in the Kit-Cat Clubb with us. I cannot feel yesterday’s rain on my skin, nor can I see yester-eve’s stars with my eyes. When I describe these things to you (in French or any other language) I am really engaging in some sort of internal colloquy with a stored image inside of my brain. It is an image I may call up on demand, as a Duke might demand that a certain painting of his be brought down out of the garret. Once it is before my mind’s eye, I may see it as if it were there, and describe it.”
“That is all well and good for recollecting what you have gathered in through your senses, and stored in the garret, as it were,” Peer said. “So I could ask you to relocate your observations of the Duchess of Qwghlm today, and rely on your account. But as you do not understand the conversation you had with her, or indeed the one you are having with me now, I fear your interpretation of what went on at Leicester House might be wide of the mark.” He spoke haltingly, unsure of how to converse with someone who didn’t understand what he was saying.
Preying on this, Daniel inquired, “But how could he interpret anything if he didn’t understand it?”
This stopped Peer’s gob for a few awkward moments.
“I would refer you to the work of Spinoza,” Dappa said, “whose words are of course perfect gibberish to me, but who wrote in his Ethics, ‘The order and connexion of ideas is the same as the order and connexion of things.’ Meaning that if there are two things, call them A and B, that have a particular relationship to each other, for example, my lord Wragby’s wig, and my lord Wragby’s head, and if I have in my mind an idea of my lord Wragby’s wig, call it alpha, and an idea of his head, call it beta, then the relationship between alpha and beta is the same as between A and B. And owing to this property of minds, it is possible for me to construct in my head an whole universe of ideas, yet each idea will relate to all of the other ideas in precisely the same way that the things represented by those ideas relate to one another; lo, ’tis as if I have created a microcosm ‘tween my ears, without understanding a bit of it. And some of the ideas may be records of sensory impressions, for example, yesterday’s weather. But others may be abstract concepts out of religion, philosophy, mathematics, or what have you–not that I’d know, since to me they are all a meaningless parade of hallucinations. But insofar as they are all ideas, they are fungible. Whatever their origins may have been, they are all now con-fused into the same currency, and so I may speak of the Pythagorean Theorem or the Treaty of Utrcht as well as I may speak of yesterday’s weather. To me, they are all just crackers–as you are, my lord Wragby.”
“That is quite clear,” Peer said vaguely, for he had gone a bit glassy-eyed round the point where Dappa had begun to use Greek letters. —The System of the World, pp 168-70 (ISBN-13 978-0-06-075086-2).
So anxiousmofo’s dilemma concerning Pat is very similar to Peer’s w/r/t/ Dappawork–both being in anxiousmofo’s terms “philosophical zombies.” And my answer is the same to both: There is no discernable, measureable difference between what goes on in Dappa’s head and the heads of others. Peer’s sanctimonious feelings of superiority over Dappa let him fall into that trap. Anxiousmofo notes that there is something “unparsimonious” about asserting that someone else is a “philosophical zombie.” And I agree wholeheartedly. After all, in the days in which Stepehenson’s novels are set they still killed one of a set of twins, arguing that only one could possibly have been born with a soul.
N.B.: I never said that there was no “real world,” only that we do not have any access to it, and that since the worlds people construct inside their heads are so much more complicated, and so often in conflict with the ones that other people are creating inside their heads, it is useful to set aside the quest for that “real world” and focus upon the ways in which we construct our own. I will be examining some of the advantages of this particular strategy as I continue to formalize this exposition of the Radical Constructivist worldview.