CEPA eprint 2628

Questions about constructivism

Andrew A. M. (2004) Questions about constructivism. Kybernetes 33(9/10): 1392–1395. Available at http://cepa.info/2628
Table of Contents
The environment
World of ideas
The question of utility
A number of observations are made about the nature of constructivism, with the suggestion that it is a less revolutionary development that has been claimed, and that some accounts imply an unwarranted disregard of the environment. The presentation is meant to be provocative and to invite discussion that may clarify the issues.
Key words: Cybernetics, Variance, Reality
The environment
There seems to be some discrepancy, in the various discussions of constructivism, over what view should be taken of the something “out there” that gives consistency to observations. Poerksen, in the little book by von Foerster and Poerksen (2002), makes the point by observing: “We use the telephone, we drive our cars, and planes weighing tons and tons take off every minute. This can only mean there is a systematic relationship between our ideas and the essence of the world”.
It is argued convincingly by Heinz von Foerster and others that an individual’s view or model of the world is his or her own construction and that there is no direct access to anything called “reality”. On the other hand, to deny that there is something “out there” would amount to solipsism, and Heinz is careful to refute its implications. Apart from other considerations, refusal to acknowledge something external to the individual would make ethics meaningless, and this is certainly not the stated intention of advocates of the constructivist viewpoint. (Strictly, ethics need not be entirely meaningless without an outside world, since ethicality should be judged on intentions rather than results. I am indebted to Anthony Booth for pointing this out. However, it is difficult to imagine ethical principles arising in the first place without external interaction.)
Although there is no direct access to “reality”, the construction formed by an individual has to allow effective interaction with the environment if he or she is to operate effectively and indeed to survive. It seems rather likely that much of the construction may be inherited rather than formed afresh in each generation, though presumably features are formed or revised in response to changes in the environment. This is consistent with the assertion that constructivist principles are relevant to education and sociology. It is also consistent with a view of the construction process as a generalisation of the devising of a scientific theory to fit a set of observations and its subsequent refinement as further observations are made.
With acknowledgement of the effect of interactions with an environment, it is possible that the constructivist viewpoint would have been acceptable (Masani, 1992). However, as he illustrates with quotations from Maturana and others, there are many suggestions in the literature that the construction becomes the environment and that in some way the feedback loops involved in behaviour bypass the effect of anything “out there”. With Masani I find it impossible to accept this stronger version of constructivism.
World of ideas
The presentation of Heinz von Foerster’s viewpoint in the book by him and Poerksen contains some assertions that seem to support the stronger version, since in page 25 he says: “if we view ourselves as the creator and inventor of our environment, something I strongly believe in, then the problem of adaptation is one we don’t have to worry about at all”. The identification of observer with creator is continued by Poerksen, who refers to: “the creation of a world, which is understood as a sum of ideas”. This seems to deny the relevance of the physical environment.
These comments are made following a quotation from the work of Konrad Lorenz, who claims that individual constructions are the result of evolution, in which those that were unsuited to the environments in which they arose did not survive. Most biologists would consider this to be the obvious explanation and would be surprised to find it being disputed.
The situation is not so simple, though, since any scientific theory, and anything said about past events, is necessarily a construction, and the point Heinz makes is that any individual is free to form his own different view. He points out that the accepted modern view of biological evolution (essentially following Darwin, but with later embellishments) is the latest in a succession of versions and has no absolute validity.
While this is true, it is easy to feel that advocates of the constructivist view tend to overlook the relevance of traditional scientific method and the fact that theories are usually chosen for good reasons, or at least for reasons that seem good in a particular intellectual climate. The accepted view of biological evolution is favoured because, by widely accepted criteria, it fits with observations and has proved useful in, for example, plant and animal breeding and tracing the inheritance of characteristics in humans. The reference to “widely accepted criteria” is an admission that, as Heinz implies, the criteria are not absolute, but even so his comment does seem to be a cavalier dismissal of a great deal of useful research.
The constructivist view, then, provides a valuable reminder that scientific theories have no absolute validity, and the criteria for choosing among them are themselves subject to change. It is good to be aware of earlier abandoned theories to avoid the arrogant assumption, implicit in much teaching of science, that modern theories are unassailable. It is impossible to avoid the feeling, though, that this need for humility can follow from an honest application of accepted principles of scientific method and does not in itself warrant recognition of constructivism as a special insight. It may be that the constructivist viewpoint has broken new ground in extending the principles so as to emphasise the insecure nature of the less formal constructions underlying everyday perception and behaviour.
A viewpoint such as that of constructivism can be valuable without breaking new ground, if it usefully directs emphasis. However, the enthusiasm with which it has been greeted by some writers suggests it does more, and that some important aspect is missed in the above. A question to be asked in this note, therefore, is: “Is something missed, and if so what is it?”
The question of utility
The above discussion has emphasised the importance of interactions with the environment. It has been argued that the construction formed by an individual has to allow effective interaction if he or she is to operate effectively and to survive.
An example of an unsuitable construction can be given by recounting certain unfortunate occurrences among young people on the drug scene. One hallucinogenic effect of the drug lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) is to give its users the impression of being able to fly, and some of them have leapt from high balconies or windows, whereupon the inappropriateness of their constructions quickly became apparent. Irrespective of whether gravity is best represented by Newton’s theory, or by that of Einstein, or by some other yet to be devised, its proved inescapable.
This particular nonviable construction arose in a brain that was subject to chemical interference, but it dramatically illustrates the need for constructions to be compatible with what is “out there”. Much of the discussion of constructivism seems to de-emphasise the need for this compatibility. A pertinent question is whether this de-emphasis is intentional, or is a false impression resulting from the stress put on novel features of the new approach while taking first-order cybernetics for granted.
It has been suggested that the forming of a construction is essentially a generalisation of scientific theory formation, and that the process may be evolutionary as suggested by Lorentz. These suggestions do not imply that constructions must converge on an unique optimum. It is easily shown that biological evolution does not produce unique convergence, since what appears to be similar ecological niches in different geographical locations come to be occupied by distinct life forms.
Rosenbrock (1990) has pointed out that even well-established laws of physics have alternative formulations. One formulation is essentially causal and the other variational. The usual formulation of Newtonian mechanics is causal, but Hamilton’s principle is an alternative expressed in terms of minimisation of a particular function (the Hamiltonian). Similarly, in optics, the path of a ray of light can be traced by applying the causal rules of diffraction at the boundaries between media, but an alternative is Huygen’s principle expressed in terms of least transmission time, often expressed as least optical path length.
In these examples, the causal and variational formulations are mathematically equivalent and each can be derived from the other. Nevertheless, it is argued by Rosenbrock that the two encourage different attitudes to manipulation of systems, since the variational formulation attributes a goal, or purpose, to the system. He argues that the difference in attitude can have profound social consequences when carried over to systems more generally.
The fact that people can communicate with each other as well as they do suggests that individual constructions are not vastly different. I cannot help feeling that the statement by Heinz von Foerster (von Foerster and Poerksen, 2002) of the little book is slightly misleading. He says: “It is the listener and not the speaker who determines the meaning of a statement”. In a sense this is true since speech is, as he says, a succession of clicks and grunts, and similarly printed text is a pattern of marks on paper, and in both cases there may or may not be significance for a particular observer.
However, to focus so strongly on the construction of meaning by the listener (or reader) is to ignore the part played by the speaker (or writer) in devising the spoken or written message with the intention that it will evoke a particular response in its recipients. Heinz’s comment seems to be rather a cavalier dismissal of the skills of great authors and poets, and indeed a modest but unwarranted deprecation of his own achievements as a writer and speaker. Once again, though, I want to pose the question to the enthusiasts for constructivism: “Is there a point I am missing in all this?”
Masani, P.R. (1992), “The illusion that man constructs reality – a retrograde trend in the cybernetical movement”, Kybernetes, Vol. 21 No. 4, pp. 11-24.
Rosenbrock, H. (1990), Machines with a Purpose, OUP, Oxford, (reviewed in Kybernetes, Vol. 21 No. 2, pp. 69-71, 1992.
von Foerster, H. and Poerksen, B. (2002), Understanding Systems: Conversations on Epistemology and Ethics, Kluwer, New York, NY.
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