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Textbook for the School of Rock-Chapter II February 7, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in DIY, Education, fiction, history, how to, lifehack, Music, Other, postmodernism, Rock, writing.

La propriété intellectuelle, c’est le vol!***

The above itself encapsulates a wealth of wisdom about the creative process.  I have stolen the famous words of anarchist Pierre Joseph Proudhon, and added a word.  Now they are my words–see how easy writing is?  Proudhon said “property is theft,” in French, cause he was French.  I have modified this to “intellectual property is theft,” which is the topic of today’s lesson.  Essentially what I mean is if you write (not just music) you steal, whether you realize it or not.  Intellectual property is based on theft of the ideas of others.

Some of the people who write music are more conscious of theft in the creative process than others.  I grew up near Sacramento, California, where in the late 1970s and early 1980s there was (and for all I know there still is) a local band, Steel Breeze, which had one nation-wide hit song.  In an interview with a local radio station the band described one of the ways in which they wrote music, which was basically this:

  1. They set up their instruments and got ready to play. 
  2. They put on an album made by some other band and played one of the songs.
  3. They turned on a tape recorder and attempted, more or less, to play the song that they had just heard.
  4. They spent a few hours attempting to make the song work.
  5. Then, eventually, they listened to original song again, the one that had sparked their horrible copy, to make sure that their song didn’t sound enough like it to be accused of stealing.
  6. If the new song was recognizably based on the old, they worked on it, making small changes, until it sounded new.

Some writers are not as candid about the creative process.  Kurt Cobain, I believe, was quite conscious of his own creative process.  I think that this is one of the reasons that he was paranoid about others catching on, so paranoid that he hid in a closet in his own home to write music.  I am not the only person to notice the similarities between Boston’s “More than a Feeling and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”** Both were hits.  The hooks are almost exactly the same.  Cobain had heard “More than a Feeling” dozens of times.  Was his copying conscious?  I think so, but I don’t think that this is a bad thing.  Indeed, I think that when this sort of thing is unconscious it can mislead people into all sorts of weird assumptions about human thought. 

So Steel Breeze was pretty conscious of their creative process.  And they never became millionaire superstars with platinum albums, but they did better than the majority of other bands in the world.  While outright, conscious theft is one way of being creative, there is another, which is the topic of the next part of Chapter II: happy accidents.

 To be continued . . .

*A proper discussion of anarchism will have to wait until the chapter, if there is one, on the Punk movement.  What I mean by “intellectual property is theft” is akin to Lucretius’s dictum “there is nothing new under the sun.”  Any time you think you are having an original thought, an inspired epiphany of some sort, what you are probably experiencing is more like this: two old thoughts which you have added together in a way similar to the ways in which you have seen many other ideas added together, but have forgotten that you saw these ideas somewhere else, and that adding them together is a pretty simple thing, after all.  

**See Malcolm Gladwell’s “Something Borrowed” in the November 22, 2004 issue of The New Yorker if you really need proof of this, or a lot of other examples.

***I have not yet read Jonathan Lethem’s article in this month’s Harpers.  Since it is basically a bunch of ideas stolen from others, like this post, what would be the point?  But I hear that it is interesting, so I link to it here.  Christopher Lydon’s Open Source is taping a show on this idea tonight, which has a comment thread running here.  So you could check that out, too. 

Textbook for the School of Rock-Chapter I, Section B January 31, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in history, Japan, Music, Other, postmodernism, Rock.

So, what happened to Cheap Trick?

Well, Jimmy (if that is your real name), they put out another album in 1980 that was produced by George Martin, and then appeared on Saturday Night Live, and they did a concert that aired on PBS that rocked so hard I thought I would die.  I watched a videotape of that concert approximately 100 times, something like once every week for a couple of years.  If it hadn’t been on Betamax (ask your grandfather) I’d probably still be watching it. 

All Shook Up (1980) had a lot of really great music on it.  But better than that, the album captured the power and verisimilitude of the band’s stage presence (to the extent possible).  The album’s most famous track “Baby Loves to Rock” was almost punk, but without punk’s anger.  It was based on a firm power chord tripod that even novitiate rockers could play (without any moveable chord forms), Robin Zander’s inimitable howl, a bass sound like an oil tanker slowly running aground, interesting and sometimes cryptic lyrics.  And the album that came after that, One on One, was just as good.  

Unfortunately, it was too late for the band to achieve the kind of stardom they deserved.  They have since written and performed the theme music for dozens of movies, as well as for That 70s Show and The Colbert Report, but their bid for superstardom faltered.


By 1980, Cheap Trick’s three disappointing studio albums of the late 1970s had made some of their most promising fans wary of being burned again.  Worse still, the band was simply one of a kind, and thus difficult to understand.  For example, the band was solidly connected, in popular imagination, to Japan, which was already, during the rapidly growing energy crisis years, becoming problematic. 

What do you mean?

Their most famous album began with the words “All Right Tokyo!” They did not look American enough, which was a crime during this era, when Americans were talking about energy independence and bombing Iran (I mean the last time we did this, of course.  I told you this was going to be confusing.)   Since the band didn’t look like anyone else, they must be Japanese, right? 

It was confusing.  Look, “Elo Kiddies” was a song off their first album that the Japanese schoolgirls seemed to really take to.  How this tune transmuted into the Hello Kitty phenomenon is a dark and frightening story that is not appropriate to tell here in this public space.  (N.B.: I was not able to link to Sanrio’s Hello Kitty, because it makes me ill to even think about doing that.  And I couldn’t use a picture, because it is trademarked, so the link goes to Hello Cthulhu, a cartoon that gives you the general idea of Hello Kitty from the appropriate perspective of ironic mockery.)  All I can do is point out the clash of the two cultures, the huge gulf between interpretive frames of reference.

Compare the song’s refrain . . .

So you missed some school,
they say school’s for fools,
today money rules,
and everybody steals it.
You lead a life of crime,
you gotta go unwind,
you haven’t got much time,
because they’re out to get you.

. . . to the Hello Kitty icon that began to appear about the same time.  Extra credit for any of you who can make even a tiny bit of sense out of that. 

They seemed to delight in confounding all of the dominant stereotypes of the era.  This was especially so in the case of lead guitarist Rick Nielsen, running around on stage wearing checkered tights and a baseball cap (hey, those Japanese are playing baseball now, too).  He looked, quite intentionally, like a cartoon character.  In contrast, Robin Zander, the lead singer, was attractive and graceful, an ex-dance instructor, with long, golden hair.  Then there was Bun E. Carlos, the band’s hard-rockin,’ chain-smokin’ drummer, who looked and dressed like a despirited, pot-bellied, balding, accounts receivable clerk.  The bassist was probably even more attractive than Zander.  It was just too large an interpretive disjuncture for the average rock fan to navigate.  

Conversation overheard in record store (Tower Records, Sunrise Blvd., Sacramento, California) between typical rocker and store employee, circa 1980:

“What does it all mean, record dude?” 
“I don’t know.”
“Oh.  Um, you got any Journey?”
“S’under “J.” [Points]
“Jay?  No, Journey.  Are you making fun of me?”

It was too easy to come to the conclusion the band was making fun of its audience.  That was a dangerous game, far too dangerous for the Reagan era, and one most simply avoided taking part in.

Textbook for the School of Rock-Introductory Preface January 29, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Education, Memory, narrative, Other, postmodernism, Rock.

The week before Christmas my son and I got “The School of Rock” from Netflix, and after I prescreened it I watched it with him.  We don’t play much rock music in the house, partially because I can only really do one thing at a time.  Playing loud rock music (’cause if it ain’t loud, what’s the point?) with a 9-year old in the house is actually two things, since he would have to play with the dog at the same time, or whistle along with it, or talk about it, or pace.  But he seems very interested in rock now that he has seen the movie.  So when I take him to school in the morning, about a ten-minute drive, he asks for another lesson, which I give him, a blasting CD and commentary afterward, a short quiz.  The school commute has become a rolling school of rock.

I guess my own musical education is pretty typical of most consumers of rock in my age group, in that I had four guitar lessons, which came free with my first guitar, an incredibly crappy Les Paul knock-off made by Memphis (all of the rigidity of an actual Gibson Les Paul, without any of the sustain, solid electronics, or prestige).  I was a pretty strange 18-year old, and instead of asking the lanky, long-fingered, long-haired guitar teacher to teach me some ACDC (where is the little lightning-bolt symbol on the keyboard, dammit?) I asked him to teach me some theory.   It never occurred to me that there was no rock theory, or that this guy might not know it.  At any rate, he taught me how to tune the thing, as well as three very different moveable jazz chord forms, barre chords, the blues scale, and a couple of other things, mostly by accident.  And then the lessons were over and I was on my own. 

Consequently, much of my knowledge of rock is stuff I have made up in my head, stuff I have interpreted incorrectly by watching rock videos on MTV, concert movies, going to actual concerts, listening to the radio, doing some reading.  What I like about rock, though, and its history, is that this is the way most people experience rock.  You go to a concert in a alcoholic daze, sit in a pot-fueled haze and you really can’t tell truth from apocrypha anyway.  So that’s what I’m giving him, myths that are better, more dramatic, than the ugly commercial reality of the actual business.  And I fit them together in a narrative, which reshapes and warps what little is left of its relationship to the truth.

We aren’t going in chronological order in these lessons.  It gets a little confusing, but that’s the postmodern world, pal.  “No,” I tell him, “the Brian Setzer Orchestra, a 1990s group, re-envisioned the music of the 30s and 40s; it was Setzer’s first group, the Stray Cats, a 1980s band, that re-envisioned the music of the 1950s.”  And we aren’t going thematically either.  So it may be confusing to put these lessons online.  But that’s what I will probably end up doing.  Check this space for lesson one soon.

Introduction to Radical Constructivism V January 18, 2007

Posted 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. 

Introduction to Radical Constructivism IV January 17, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Blogs and Blogging, Constructivism, Education, lojban, Memory, Other, Philosophy, postmodern, postmodernism, science.
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Postulate Number II: Verbal and nonverbal communication is the most frequent and important way that adult brains acquire information.

According to studies of daytime activities of representative adults and teenagers in the United States, we spend from 20-45 percent of the day working or studying, 4-15 percent of the day talking, eating, or daydreaming at work, 9-13 percent of the day exposing ourselves to media (television and reading, mainly–does not include going to a cinema), and 4-12 percent of the day talking or socializing.  Assuming eight hours of sleep (well, you could take better care of yourself) we spend anywhere from six hours, forty minutes (6:40) to fifteen hours, eighteen minutes (15:18) engaged in communication.*  Those of you with jobs that entail less physical work and more talking, writing, reading and other sorts of communication, and this probably includes most of the people reading this, spend more than that.

This constant communication forms the world in which we spend not only the time actively engaged in it, but much of the remainder as well, as our self-talk, coming now from our minds but originating in countless past conversations, television shows, books, movies, advertisements, shouted insults, lectures, blogs, memes, interrogations, beatings, affairs, jazz riffs, hate mail, spam, the lyrics of Oingo Boingo songs, jingles, warning flags, spankings, gestures, and such bathes us in a constant stream of images and words–messages. 

This communication, more than anything, even more than the physical constraints which seem to keep you from, say, flying to the moon or sinking to the Earth’s molten core, is the world in which your brain lives most of its waking hours.

[To reinforce Postulate Number I for this specific and important way in which our brains acquire knowlege: This allows an amazing amount of potential for misunderstanding.  Partially, this is a feature of our language, any language (except Lojban, about which the jury is still out).  Partially, I think, it may come from the belief that one can reason objectively about this world of language.]

Postulate Number I: The process by which we acquire knowledge is limited, hobbled, and distorted by a number of things.

Postulate Number II: Verbal and nonverbal communication is the most frequent and important way that adult brains acquire information.

*Finding flow : the psychology of engagement with everyday life, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, pp 9.

Introduction to Radical Constructivism III January 16, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Constructivism, Other, Philosophy, postmodern, postmodernism, science.

I have looked at my previous postings on this subject and they appear long-winded, flippant, and needlessly argumentative.  Indeed, I think that it is possible I have started out on the wrong foot entirely.  Postulate number one really should be something like postulate number 10.  There is too much to cover for anyone not already convinced could take it seriously. 

So let me try again, building up from smaller assertions.

Postulate Number I (revised)–The process by which we acquire knowledge is limited, hobbled, and distorted by a number of things.

Example A: Consider that our brains can process recieve something like 10,000 sensory inputs per second, but can process only a small fraction of that input. 

Example B:Consider that our brains play tricks on us, making up information about the outside world and trying to pass it off as input.

An experiment you can do at home–The Blind Spot

  1. Take out a blank piece of paper. 
  2. Draw a star in the middle of it about an inch from the left-hand side, bigger than the diameter of a pencil, but a little smaller than an IPod ear-bud. 
  3. Three and one-half inches to the right of the star, draw a dot, approximately the same size as the star.
  4. Hold the paper in front of you, about six inches away.
  5. Close your left eye and stare at the star with your right one.  (The star should be directly in front of your right eye.)
  6. Slowly move the paper away from you while staring at the star.

At a point around 10-11 inches away from your eye, the dot will appear to cease to exist.  The paper will appear to be blank in the spot where the dot was, unless you move your right eye away from the star to look at it.  You have a blank spot in the photoreceptors that receive light in your eyes.  Your brain constantly fills in these spots with information from your other eye, or if that eye is closed or missing, from your short term memory.  It constructs this picture you think of as “reality.”

Example C: Consider that when painters wish to see the “true” color of an element of “reality” that they are painting (especially when out-of-doors), they make a hole in a card, and look at the element through that hole, diminishing the effect that the surroundings have upon the brain’s perception of the element.  In other words, people look at trees and think of their trunks as brown and their leaves as green, while the light that actually bounces off the trunk can appear green, black, grey, red, or many other colors, depending on the position of the sun, the condition of the atmosphere, and, especially important to landscape painters, the distance from the painter.

Introduction to Radical Constructivism II January 11, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Constructivism, Education, Other, Philosophy, postmodern, postmodernism, science.

My apologies, SilverTiger, and others who are following this dialogue, for being so long in posting the second of this series.  The following is only a partial response to his second post on the subject.  There is a great deal there, and although I would love to respond to it all, I am thinking that it might be easier to follow this discussion if it is taken in small chunks. 

SilverTiger’s first question is a digression, probably, from the main body of this, since it originated in my personal narrative, which had perched on the razor-thin fence of relevance.  However, I will attempt to answer it, just to be fair to the spirit of this discussion. 

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?

Yes.  Of course we do.   We always have reason to suspect a historian’s treatment, as well as the facts they chose, and how they were chosen, and whether they are answering relevant and valuable questions, etc.  Unfortunately, historians don’t agree on these things as a matter of course.  They don’t always agree on facts, methods, important subject areas, or other weighty concerns.  Within the profession there is a tacitly-agreed-upon canon of books and studies that form the basis of what we might call “historical knowledge.”  But every generation new and talented historians decide that other areas need to be included (as, for example, the Middle East becomes more important and the fall of the Soviet Union makes more Ottoman materials available for study).  And sometimes talented historians smash old “truths” and dispute old “facts” as well.

The next question SilverTiger poses is

The description of the pilot flying on instruments is interesting, but what does it really tell us? . . . How true is it, though?

Well, it is a workable, and somewhat functional, start to other important points of which Radical Constructivism is, itself constructed.  It is a model of the way the body and brain seem to function.  Is is true?  I’m not sure this question makes any sense in RC.  But SilverTiger elaborates further down with some additional questions.

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.

This is an interesting example of the difficulty of a scientific, rational, realist worldview.  When you put your hand on a hot plate your reflexes and reactions occur without the intermediary of the brain, pulling your hand from the plate and initiating another series of actions, an adrenaline rush, for example, and possibly an exclaimation.  What the brain does, is reorders these reactions.  You think that you yelled simultaneously with pulling your hand off.  You think that the sensation of pain came before the reaction.  It did not.  In fact, it had to be interpreted as pain, whereas it began as intense sensation along a number of nerves. 

I agree that the whole thing is nothing like seeing the world through a TV screen.  But I’m not sure how that invalidates the analogy or the point I was attempting to make, which was that our brains are locked inside our heads. 

Regarding the next question, about the Newtonian vs. Einsteinian worldviews, you seem to be saying that that I originated that distinction.  I was talking about Ptolemaic vs. Copernican models of the behavior of the Earth and the Sun–a simpler distinction.  Regardless, let me attempt to answer the questions posed below.

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.

I didn’t use my example to demonstrate that “the real world is inaccessible to us.”  I take this as an axiom, a provisional assumption that nobody has really been able to demonstrate false to my satisfaction.  But first they would have to get me interested in the importance of thinking that the real world is accessible to us.  I have seen many of the “real worlds” asserted by others dashed to bits.  Whenever I hear somebody talking about “facing reality” I become wary.  Such a phrase usually means that they have recognized that I do not share their view of a situation and have, thus, become upset by that knowledge.  The assertion that somebody else will not “face facts” or “see the real situation” is what Nietche would have called a “will to power.”

So, does the Earth revolve about the Sun (Copernican), or does the Sun revolve around the Earth (Ptolemaic)?  This is a spurious distinction to somebody who thinks as a constructivist.  RC thinking would go more like this:  Which equations are easiest to use in order to get me up in space and return me safely to Earth? 

Regarding the question of whether we can “construct any world we like . . . and use whichever we please because the world is merely like we think it is,” I’m always a little puzzled by this assumption.  The idea that we construct reality does not mean that we do so arbitrarily.  We rely on a great deal of sensory data, millions of little experiments that we conduct and record, our interactions with others, and perhaps most important, the voices in our heads, to “construct reality.”

Most people, scientists included, will acknowledge, as SilverTiger has, that one shapes questions about the world, which, in turn, shapes the answers one gets about it.  So everyone is “constructing” their own reality.  The important questions, it seems to me, have to do with the amount of our own reality that we are constructing, the proportion.  I won’t assert that we construct all of our own reality, for the simple reason that I assume that is the case.  The more I come to grips with the process by which I am constructing my world, the more control I am able to assert over the construction process. 

I’m working hard on proposition number two.  But in the interests of the give-and-take of discussion, I’d like to ask one question first.  SilverTiger asserts that “the question . . . is whether we can in any meaningful way know this underlying real world.”  For Radical Constructivists, of course, this is not a meaningful question.  Can we know something about this thing that seems so important to you?  I don’t know.  I promise to think carefully about the answer to that, however, as soon as SilverTiger, or anyone else out there, can show me that it is an important question.

Introduction to Radical Constructivism I January 7, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Blogs and Blogging, Books, Constructivism, history, Other, postmodern, postmodernism, science.

A couple of days ago I happened upon an interesting blog written by an even more interesting person called, in the blogosphere at least, SilverTiger.  I have been showering his blog with odd comments and questions and in return he has commented on my own.  Recently, if there can be anything more recent than the aforementioned “couple of days,” I commented on an interesting post he wrote about sudoku, and he, in turn, challenged me to a sort of debate on our respective blogs, about the merits and shortcomings of such a philosophical position–Radical Constructivism (RC). 

I had meant to write about this particular philosophical position before, but, well, you all know how that goes.  SilverTiger’s challenge seems like a good time to start. 

 I thought I’d start with the comment that precipitated it, which was

Interesting. I have no doubt that there is a “real” reality out there. The idea that we somehow contruct reality seems illogical to me. For example, if I construct reality, how did I construct “myself”? Or do I merely imagine that there was a time before I existed?

No, for me, the findings of science hold together far too solidly for the world to be some kind of Buddhistic delusion. The only reasonable defence seems fully blown solipsism.

If you don’t find it too much of a bore, how about rehearsing the constructivist prospectus in a post? I might then be moved to post a contrary view. Could be fun.

Well, we shall see about the “fun” part.  I’m pretty sure that SilverTiger and I will have fun.  But whether this will be interesting for others, I do not know.

I spent some time today thinking about how to coalesce RC into something that would be understandable to most people, and I found this a terribly difficult task.  There are two main reasons for this.  First, it developed independently in several different disciplines and, therefore, has several sets of jargon that make it (second) difficult even for me to explain to myself.  There are at least three excellent books on it, that I know of (and I’d love to hear of others, of course).

  • How Real is Real, Paul Watzlavick, ed.  
  • Invented Reality: How Do We Know What We Believe We Know?, Paul Watzlavick, ed.  
  • Munchhausen’s Pigtail or Psychotherapy & Reality, Paul Watzlawick

For those who prefer the internets, the best possible paper on the subject may be found at:

Riegler, A. (2001) Towards a Radical Constructivist Understanding of Science. Foundations of Science, special issue on “The Impact of Radical Constructivism on Science” 6(1):1-30.

(For that last one, click on the title to find it at it’s current home. )

This little debate between SilverTiger and I (and whoever else would like to join in, of course, through the comments space) might take a while, because I am simply unable at the moment, to lay out a series of postulates that would do this perspective justice.  Instead, first up is a response to SilverTiger’s comments in the form of a personal narrative.

I studied History in graduate school, and one of my first graduate courses was in the field of historiography, which is the study of the writing of history.  This class was taught by an excellent teacher at California State University, Sacramento, and his name escapes me at the moment, for I wasn’t ever officially in the graduate program there, so I didn’t have to remember his name. 

At some point in the semester we read an address by an eminent American “progressive historian” who asked the people in the audience to think carefully about whether they saw history as a progression towards the perfection of humanity, or as a decline, or as a sort of spirally curve that didn’t go anywhere in particular. 

For the life of me I couldn’t understand what this guy was talking about.  And I asked the rest of the class “why are there no other options?”  The professor waited a second for somebody else to field the question and then, as no other responses were forthcoming, said “like what?”

I couldn’t think of anything, and was a little embarrased.  And yet, I knew there must be something else.  It soon (not soon enough to use in the class, but relatively soon as I beat myself up over not being able to come up with an answer, maybe a couple of years later) dawned on me that the appropriate answer was something like this: “Like thinking that that is a weird question and rejecting it out-of-hand.”  Perfection is in the eye of the beholder, or in this case in the eye of the pontificator.  This guy’s idea of perfection and mine were almost certainly different, since he was born at least one hundred years before me. 

So, the problem here is first to recognize that dividing the world into realists and solipsists is spurious.  I do not believe that I am creating the entire world in my head, which would be the criticism most people levy against RC, without understanding it.  It is not solipsism.  RC simply rejects the idea that it is important to think about whether or not there is a real world. 

So, what isRC?  How about an analogy, to start things off?  Imagine that you are a pilot of a plane with excellent instruments.  You can see through a little video screen the view from any direction, and your instruments tell you all about the plane’s relationship to the rest of the world.  Maturana (Maturana, H. R. (1978) Biology of Language: The Epistemology of Reality. In: Miller, G. A. & Lenneberg, E. (eds.) Psychology and Biology of Language and Thought: Essays in Honor of Eric Lenneberg, New York: Academic Press, pp. 27- 63.) asserts that this is pretty much the boat we are all in. 

The only way we know about something like the rest of the world is through our senses.  The only way we know that the information we get from our senses is correct (conforming in some fashion to something we think of as reality) is that our other senses corraborate that information.  Our eyes see a table with food on it.  Our nose smells the food.  If we try to walk though the table, our sense of touch will let us know that we may not do so. 

Postulating an objective “real world” is not a problem, in this simple example.  One is unlikely to find anything to counter that perspective.  But there are many things in the objective “real world” that will throw you for a loop.  Consider, for example, that the progressive historian I mentioned earlier may (or may not) have been a racist who believed that people with dark skin were inferior to those with lighter color skin.  What, then, of his vision of perfection, or of progress? 

Any discussion involving the perceptions of more than one individual quickly begins to tax the idea of there being any objective reality.   The wonderful thing about science is that, in the experience of most people, it does not run into such problems.  But consider, for a moment, that most people are aware that the Earth revolves around the Sun.  And yet one might ask whether this heliocentric view plays any part at all in the calculations necessary in the ballistics of launching and landing the Space Shuttle.  For these calculations it is simplest, and least dangerous, to retreat to the Ptolemaic worldview.  Astrogators, in other words, set aside their knowledge of “the real world” in order to get their jobs done. 

So, this rehearsal of the constructivist position begins with postulate number one, viz: The assertion that there is an objective reality out there somewhere, while very helpful at the level at which animals interact with the world, can lead to nonsense at more complicated levels of thought, and this assertion really out ought to be the first thing tossed out the window when one is doing complicated sorts of reasoning.

So, SilverTiger, or others who wish to get involved here, any reaction to postulate 1.