Belief and systems.
Gash H. (2014) Belief and systems.. In: G. E. Lasker & K. Hiwaki. (eds.) Personal and Spiritual Development in the World of Cultural Diversity. Vol XI.. International Institute for Advanced Studies, PO Box 3010 Tecumseh Ontario: 7–11. Available at http://cepa.info/2508
Table of Contents
Overview of constructivist thinking
Responsible for our reality
Structure determined nature of action
Feedback identity and mutual respect
Systems thinking is a source of insights into how ideas interact and change. In the contemporary world there is evidence of turbulence in many domains such as the economic, ecological, and political systems. Constructivism offers insights into the role of beliefs in conflicts and the conditions for reconciliation. These include the limited nature of knowledge, the role of difference in cognition, our need for certainty, and the importance of negative feedback in regulating process.
Key words: Constructivism, beliefs, conflict, realities, certainty
These are turbulent times. We are experiencing an economic crisis that began in 2007 with the collapse of the sub-prime market in the US, and it is not entirely clear that this crisis is over. In addition, the arguments against man made climate change are quietening slowly and more people are appreciating the seriousness and immanence of major ecological changes. Lethal conflicts in the Middle East and Africa are part of our daily news. Economic, ecological, and political systems are all struggling to find equilibria. The challenge for any surviving system is to adjust and find a balance between what is expected and what is ongoing. In the case of political and social systems, one way to establish an equilibrium is by understanding how to create conditions for a more equitable and just society. Given the amount of discontent reported in our daily news, this is clearly a huge challenge, and appreciating how important a role beliefs play and how different beliefs can emerge is part of a solution.
In this paper I examine a variety of insights from a systems perspective to interpret the role of beliefs in both the origins and possible solutions to conflicts. These include the counter intuitive position that human knowledge is limited, the fundamental role of difference in cognition and the inevitable linking of value to difference, our biological need for certainty, and the importance of negative feedback in regulating escalatory processes.
Overview of constructivist thinking
Constructivist explanations of thinking present a model of the origins and nature of ideas showing some signs of becoming more widely accepted in psychology (Johnson, 2009), in education Tobias and Duffy (2009) and in philosophy especially where there is discussion of the meaning of reality (Floridi, 2011). There are many introductions to constructivist ideas available for example in the journal Constructivist Foundations. Riegler (2007) parsimoniously described constructivism as involving two crucial elements: (1) subjects actively construct knowledge in order (2) to organise their experience of the world.
Responsible for our reality
There are a number of ideas embedded in constructivist thinking that are important for appreciating how it may contribute to our understanding of belief systems. One is the idea that we are responsible for our choices, and the reality we experience is our own viable model. I wonder if this was why religious people are reverential to religious figures. Is it people recognise it is difficult or impossible to capture some concepts with precision, and do justice to the �referent� adequately in word or artistic representation. Radical constructivism is distinguished from social constructivism through this emphasis on the personal nature of knowing and how knowledge of reality is a working model rather than a �true� representation. Von Glasersfeld (1974) introduced the phrase �radical constructivism� emphasising how this particular way of modelling knowledge demonstrated a break with a traditional epistemology that considered truth as verification of knowledge as a representation of reality. Dewey�s (1929) view of the relation between ideas and reality emphasised this rupture when he wrote that ideas are the result of mental operations rather than a reflection of reality. My sense is that the debates on ways of framing reality are increasingly moving towards Glasersfeld�s (1974) radical constructivist position.
There is strong opposition to constructivism and radical constructivism in particular from thinkers who believe that knowledge always approaches Reality, for whom abandoning truth as a reflection of reality is a step too far. In abandoning truth, some take constructivism to mean that any position on reality is equally valid, so �anything goes�! However, our constructions are always constrained by experience and what von Glasersfeld and many other constructivists propose is not in any way a relativistic position on knowledge. Knowledge is either viable or not viable in experience. It�s just that we cannot assume that our knowledge is more than a human model of experience. Reality remains mysterious. Our realities with a small �r� remain personal and constrained by our experiences of events and people. One reason for a growing acceptance of constructivism may be that increasingly scientists can model phenomena successfully with computers, though this is a topic for another paper.
A second fundamental element in constructivism concerns the importance of noticing difference. Infants have certain inbuilt mechanisms determining what sensory capacities they can use. How much babies know about the use of these capacities is a subject of much research and conjecture. In terms of vision, for example, it seems agreed that it takes about three or five months to learn to recognise faces well enough to notice distortions in them. Scientists can observe babies noticing lines and shadows much earlier. Infants notice differences and act to adjust and reduce or maintain the difference. Other experiments demonstrate that infants prefer music they have heard prior to birth! Generally, the differences that babies notice are sensory and later conceptual. These sensory capacities link inevitably with value. For example, when the weather is cold, creatures avoid cold and seek warmth, in hot conditions organisms seek cool conditions. As adults, we set the thermostat depending on the conditions we wish to maintain. The point is that differences that make a difference are important and valued. It is usually the case that when a difference is noted, one of the varying parameters is preferred. If we stay with examples in the sensory domain, cooler drink or warmer drink, coloured shirt or white shirt, less spices or more spices, one of the alternatives is usually preferred. Belief systems are usually highly valued by those for whom the belief system is part of their cultural identity. In this case, other belief systems are usually not valued.
Structure determined nature of action
A third element in systemic thinking is the structure determined nature of systems � the system operates in a set way. This links with each of the preceding two elements (1) the uncomfortable notion of realities and (2) the inevitable attaching of value to one side of a difference that makes a difference. Once a system is functioning well, there is a certainty about our expectations as to how it works. It works the same way each time like an alarm clock or a thermostat. People need a degree of certainty and we vary individually in terms of this need. Some of us need lots of certainty and reassurance, others are more willing to suspend expectations for longer. Further, certainty has an important role to play in survival. Expectations also play a major role in our daily activities and group support for expectations and beliefs plays a major role in maintaining belief systems. While our ideas are initially our own constructions or synthesis of our experiences, these beliefs later become part of our identity in our group. So, there is social support for our ideas and this makes it more difficult to change our ideas and our expectations about what is certain.
Gregory Bateson described the relationship between organisms and their environments in terms of homeostasis. Organisms maintain this balance by cybernetic feedback that depends on noticed difference. Given that we rely on what we know to survive, it is vital that we have identified the differences that do make a difference. They provide us with basis for a viable fit with our environments. Being �right� is very important and something we learn early as children. Further, being right has a different meaning if we think that we all have the same reality compared with if we think that we each have constructed our own best models. Maturana (1988) put this well distinguishing �reality� and �reality in parenthesis�. In the former case disagreements became opportunities for power assertion, each position claiming that they were �right�. However, in the case of �reality in parenthesis� then differences were opportunities for discussion to try to understand the basis for the difference. The norm is that people expect their world view to be �right�. As a result, I think the constructivist position of allowing people to hold different positions on reality and to take responsibility for them is uncomfortable and not commonplace.
If we apply this to the world of belief in politics or religion or culture, we can appreciate why so many group conflicts seem to be based on different strongly held views about what is �right�. Different views enter a competition as to which worldview is dominant. It becomes a power struggle. People can be very dismissive of views that do not coincide with their own. There is no doubt that such differences can cause serious and potentially lethal conflict. To outsiders the differences may seem apparently innocuous, such as shades of interpretation of religious ideologies in the case of North of Ireland. To those who lived with this conflict, however, it wasn�t about religious issues, it was about identity and all the cultural and political implications of belonging to one or other group. More fundamentally, it was about difference and its interpretation, what difference means for creating ingroups and outgroups. In the North of Ireland the issue was who held power and how resources were shared and who could participate in democracy. The Protestant Government�s constraints on Catholic participation in Government precipitated the crisis in 1968. Thirty years later opposition groups signed a major peace agreement called the Good Friday agreement. Differences remain, but both sides work in government and in policing the North of Ireland so power is shared in ways that were not possible in the past. Such power sharing implies that the divergent views of opposing groups are each allowed space to exist and live.
Feedback identity and mutual respect
Feedback is another element in systems theory that is useful when thinking about beliefs. There is a natural tendency for systems to repeat actions that work or that reward. However, positive feedback has a tendency to encourage escalation or increases in the behaviour. We like something, so we do it again. Systems need negative feedback to regulate processes and prevent destructive escalation. So in any negotiation or conflict between A and B, A will tend to repeat its position until conditions exist for A to listen carefully and respectfully to B. If B is not taken seriously, then there is no negative feedback to A, because there is no respect for B who is not legitimate.
The violence expressed towards the Other in each rival covers the fear that the Self will cease to exist. Violence reigned from 1968 to the 1998 Peace Agreement, and at present renewed negotiations have just taken place (Dec 2013 and Jan 2014) to try to settle differences in relation to marching, banners and other issues that prove to be resilient �flash points� close to July 12th that commemorates the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. The conditions in which these negotiations take place seem to be helped by some �neutral� and agreed facilitator. In the recent negotiations, Dr Richard Haase and Professor Meghan O�Sullivan have facilitated the discussions. Each of these people have extensive experience of guiding negotiations between rival political groups. Within systems theories, higher order organisations provide new contexts for systems that function independently at lower orders. In the phase of conflict however, in systems terms, one can characterise the conflict as showing no recognition of the other point of view as legitimate. Without such recognition, there can be no negative feedback, just continual escalation of violence and denial of the other. Resolution requires establishing the identity and legitimacy of the other so that there can be some real feedback from one to the other, some recognition of the other�s humanity and needs, some genuine feedback. While the other is not taken seriously, the situation is out of hand, and in runaway in system�s terms.
Extrapolating from the situation in Ireland to other flashpoints in not simple. McCann (2013) recently pointed out that there have been a series of meetings given by Irish people to export advice (or draw parallels) from the peace process in Ireland to other conflict zones including South Africa, Iraq, the southern Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the Basque Country, Palestine and Afghanistan. McCann makes the point that only in broad terms are there parallels and that the advice may not fit well enough to achieve the desired effect. Take the example of South Africa, McCann states that it is insulting to South Africans to make direct comparisons to the North of Ireland. The problems in South Africa were very clear and the country was important economically. The problems in the North of Ireland were less easy to explain, the country was not important economically and it was easy to involve a dispassionate American administration.
Whatever about the similarities between conflict resolution in Ireland and elsewhere, social psychology has pointed to conditions needed for solutions since Gordon Allport�s (1954) work showed the beneficial effects of having two groups meet and share activities in ways that included each group fairly. While this may be difficult to organise, the evidence continues to show that if ideologically different groups can meet in non-threatening ways so that they come to respect and appreciate each other then the inequalities in social dominance fade (Dhont, Van Hiel, & Hewstone, 2014).
At a time when Tony Blair (Helm, 2014) deplores the abuse of religious ideas to promote violent confrontations and calls for tolerance, I hope psychological research and insights into belief systems can help in this promotion of tolerance.
Allport, G. The Nature of Prejudice. (1954; 1979). Addison-Wesley: Reading, MA�.
Dewey, J. (1929).The Quest for Certainty. Capricorn: New York.
Dhont, K., Van Hiel, A., & Hewstone, M. (2014). Changing the ideological roots of prejudice. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 17 (1), 27-44.
Floridi, L. (2011) A defence of constructionism: Philosophy as conceptual engineering. Metaphilosophy 42 (3):282-304. (http://www.philosophyofinformation.net/Welcome.html )
Glasersfeld, E. von (1974) Piaget and the radical constructivist epistemology. In: Smock, C. D. & Glasersfeld, E. von (eds.) Epistemology and education. Follow Through Publications: Athens, GA, pp. 1�24.
Helm, T. (2014). Extremist religion is at the root of 21st-century wars, says Tony Blair. The Guardian, 25.1.14.
Johnson, S. (2009). ( Ed.) Neoconstructivism: The new science of cognitive development.” Oxford University Press, Oxford.
McCann, E. (2013) Irish Times 12.12.13 The lessons of peace learned in the North may not be that easy to export. Retrieved 15.1.14
Maturana, H.R. (1988). Reality: The Search for Objectivity or the Quest for a Compelling Argument. Irish Journal of Psychology, Vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 25-82.
Riegler, A. (2007) Is Glasersfeld�s constructivism a dangerous intellectual tendency? In: Glanville, R. & Riegler, A. (eds.) The importance of being Ernst. Echoraum: Vienna, pp. 263�275.
Tobias, S., & Duffy, T.M. (2009). (Eds.) Constructivist Instruction: Success or Failure? Routledge, London.
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