The Impact of Radical Constructivism on Science

Foundations of Science
Volume 6, Numbers 1 to 4

Special issue editor: Alexander Riegler

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About the special issue

Constructivism is the idea that we construct our own world rather than being determined by an outside reality. Its most consequent form, Radical Constructivism (RC), claims that we cannot transcend our experiences. Therefore it doesn't make sense to say that our constructions gradually approach the structure of an external reality. Yet, RC has the potential to go much further. It is claimed that RC provides the foundation of a new world-view in which we can overcome hard scientific problems. Rather than asking What is knowledge? and What is Reality?, RC is interested in investigating the mechanisms of knowledge construction. Therefore, RC has the constructive opportunity to transform from a purely philosophical-argumentative framework into a scaffolding for science.

Volume 6, Nos. 1–3


Alexander Riegler

Towards a Radical Constructivist Understanding of Science

Constructivism is the idea that we construct our own world rather than it being determined by an outside reality. Its most consistent form, Radical Constructivism (RC), claims that we cannot transcend our experiences. Thus it doesn't make sense to say that our constructions gradually approach the structure of an external reality. The mind is necessarily an epistemological solipsist, in contrast to being an ontological solipsist who maintains that this is all there is, namely a single mind within which the only world exists. RC recognizes the impossibility of the claim that the world does not exist. Yet, RC has the potential to go much further. I claim that RC provides the foundation of a new world-view in which we can overcome hard scientific problems. Thus, the paper is urging us to carry RC further, not just on philosophical grounds, but also into the domain of science.

The Paradigm

Ernst von Glasersfeld

The Radical Constructivist View of Science

From the constructivist perspective, science cannot transcend the domain of experience. Scientific theories are seen as models that help to order and manage that domain. As the experiential field expands, models are replaced by others based on novel conceptual constructs. The paper suggests the substitution of 'viability' or 'functional fit' for the notions of Truth and objective representation of an experiencer-independent reality. This by-passes the sceptics' incontrovertible arguments against certain real-world knowledge and proposes the Piagetian conception of cognition as the function that generates ways and means for dealing with the world of experience.

Ranulph Glanville

An Observing Science

In this paper I make the arguments that I see supporting a view of how we can come to know the world we live in.
I start from a position in second order cybernetics which turns out to be a Radical Constructivist position. This position is essentially epistemological, and much of this paper is concerned with the act of knowing, crucial when we try to develop an understanding of what me mean when we discuss a field of knowing (knowledge), which is at the root of science.
The argument follows a path in which I discuss the essential role of the observer in observing, the creation of constancies between different observings and their exteriorisation as objects which are then represented and used in communication with and between other observers, each unique (and therefore each observing in its own way). This leads to the assertion that the qualities we associate with the objects of our universes are attributions, rather than properties inherent in the objects themselves.
At each step in the argument I explore consequences for how we understand the world, in particular through science. I show limitations, new insights and understandings, and re-evaluate what we can expect to gain from science. One change is the shift from noun to verb in the consideration of processses—for instance, the study of living rather than life.
In this way, I intend to show not only that Radical Constructivism is sensible, but that it does not preclude us having a science. In contrast, it can enrich science by taking on board the sensible.
In the process, which science is seen to be the more basic is challenged.

Gerard de Zeeuw

Constructivism: A 'Next' Area of Scientific Development?

Radical Constructivism has been defined as an 'unconventional approach to the problem of knowledge and knowing'. Its unconventionality is summarised by its claim that it is impossible to attribute unique meaning to experience-as no mind-independent yardstick can be assumed to exist against which to identify uniqueness, and hence to produce knowledge and knowing. In other words, it is claimed that there is no 'reality' that is knowable to all individual knowers. This claim appears indefensible by itself, as it does not explain why the successes of traditional science appear as such. However, it is defensible in the context of numerous failures to achieve unique attributions, or of the history of science. Even so, what is missing are concrete methods and research designs. This often leaves Radical Constructivism to be critical only, to concentrate on justifying the impossibility of success without contributing itself.
Where this is the case it reduces scientists to individuals considered unable to communicate with others on public (and unique) attributions-who may do so only by borrowing methods from previous approaches. It is argued that a more valuable contribution is possible if Radical Constructivism is seen as a response to the challenge defined by frequent failures of traditional approaches. The latter may be extended such that the extensions converge to Radical Constructivism. Such extensions are based on reported observations, rather than on experiences in general, and are to be attributed meanings-uniquely as well as non-uniquely-by way of a collective. The latter should allow its 'actors' to restrict what maintains the collective to what is observable to others, as well as use the collective to restrict their own observations. The study of collectives thus allows for the study of restrictions or values, and hence for including subjective or constructivist experiences beyond (reportable) observations.

Cognition and Biology

John Stewart

Radical Constructivism in Biology and Cognitive Science

This article addresses the issue of "objectivism vs constructivism" in two areas, biology and cognitive science, which are intermediate between the natural sciences such as physics (where objectivism is dominant) and the human and social sciences (where constructivism is widespread). The issues in biology and in cognitive science are intimately related; in each of these twin areas, the "objectivism vs constructivism" issue is interestingly and rather evenly balanced; as a result, this issue engenders two contrasting paradigms, each of which has substantial specific scientific content. The neo-Darwinian paradigm in biology is closely resonant with the classical cognitivist paradigm in cognitive science, and both of them are intrinsically objectivist. The organismic paradigm in biology, based on the concept of autopoiesis, is consonant with the paradigm of "enaction" in cognitive science the latter paradigms are both profoundly constructivist.
In cognitive science, the objectivism vs constructivism issue is internal to the scientific field itself and reflexivity is inescapable. At this level, strong ontological objectivism is self-contradictory and therefore untenable. Radical constructivism is self-coherent; but it also rehabilitates a weak form of objectivism as a pragmatically viable alternative. In conclusion, there is an even-handed reciprocity between "objectivist" and "constructivist" perspectives. Finally, the article examines the consequences of this conclusion for fields other than cognitive science: biology; physics and the natural sciences; and the human and social sciences.

Markus Peschl

Constructivism, Cognition, and Science. An Investigation of Its Links and Possible Shortcomings

This paper addresses the questions concerning the relationship between scientific and cognitive processes. The fact that both, science and cognition, aim at acquiring some kind of knowledge or representation about the "world" is the key for establishing a link between these two domains. It turns out that the constructivist framework represents an adequate epistemological foundation for this undertaking, as its focus of interest is on the (constructive) relationship between the world and its representation. More specifically, it will be show, how cognitive processes and their primary concern to construct a representation of the environment and to generate functionally fitting behavior can act as the basis for embedding the activities and dynamics of the process of science in them by making use of constructivist concepts, such as functional fitness, structure determinedness, etc.
Cognitive science and artificial life provide the conceptual framework of representational spaces and their interaction between each other and with the environment enabling us to establish this link between cognitive processes and the development/dynamics of scientific theories. The concepts of activation, synaptic weight, and genetic (representational) spaces are powerful tools which can be used as "explanatory vehicles" for a cognitive foundation of science, more specifically for the "context of discovery" (i.e., the development, construction, and dynamics of scientific theories and paradigms). Representational spaces do not only offer us a better understanding of embedding science in cognition, but also show, how the constructivist framework, both, can act as an adequate epistemological foundation for these processes and can be instantiated by these representational concepts from cognitive science.
The final part of this paper addresses some more fundamental questions concerning the positivistic and constructivist understanding of science and human cognition. Among other things it is asked, whether a purely functionalist and quantitative view of the world aiming almost exclusively at its prediction and control is really satisfying for our intellect (having the goal of achieving a profound understanding of reality).

Tom Ziemke

The Construction of 'Reality' in the Robot: Constructivist Perspectives on Situated Artificial Intelligence and Adaptive Robotics

This paper discusses different approaches in cognitive science and artificial intelligence research from the perspective of radical constructivism, addressing especially their relation to the biologically based theories of von Uexküll, Piaget as well as Maturana and Varela. In particular recent work in 'New AI' and adaptive robotics on situated and embodied intelligence is examined, and we discuss in detail the role of constructive processes as the basis of situatedness in both robots and living organisms

Volume 6, No. 4


Helmut Schwegler

Physics Develops Unaffected by Constructivism

The way physics and other parts of science work can be explained in the framework of radical constructivism. However, this constructivist view itself shows that a uniquily accepted epistemology, constructivism or any other, would not be an advantage for the development of science. Unlike physics some parts of science successfully use constructivist concepts inside their theories. Because this is the case particularly in learning theory, constructivist ideas can help to improve physics teaching.

Gerhard Grössing

Comparing the Long-Term Evolution of "Cognitive Invariances" in Physics with a Dynamics in States of Consciousness

It is shown that the evolution of physics can in several regards be described by elements of "regression", i.e., that within a certain tradition of ideas one begins with the construction of most "plausible" statements (axioms) at hand, and then "works onself backwards" with respect to developmental terms. As a consequence of this strategy, the further work proceeds along such a "regressive" path, the more one arrives at concepts and relationships which are unexpected or even counter-intuitive in terms of our everyday experiences.
However, a comparable phenomenology is well known from studies on states of consciousness. In particular, the evolutionary logic of the constructions of major "cognitive invariances" in physics, which is in part due to ever increasing rates of data processing, is mirrored in a logic of states of consciousness which deviate from a "normal" state of daily routine along increasing levels of central nervous arousal.
Examples are given from the evolution of physics, and future perspectives are briefly outlined on the basis thereof.

Olaf Diettrich

A Physical Approach to the Construction of Cognition and to Cognitive Evolution

It is shown that the method of operational definition of theoretical terms applied in physics may well support constructivist ideas in cognitive sciences when extended to observational terms. This leads to unexpected results for the notion of reality, induction and for the problem why mathematics is so successful in physics.
A theory of cognitive operators is proposed which are implemented somewhere in our brain and which transform certain states of our sensory apparatus into what we call perceptions in the same sense as measurement devices transform the interaction with the object into measurement results. Then, perceived regularities, as well as the laws of nature we would derive from them can be seen as invariants of the cognitive operators concerned and are by this human specific constructs rather than ontologically independent elements. (e.g., the law of energy conservation can be derived from the homogeneity of time and by this depends on our mental time metric generator). So, reality in so far it is represented by the laws of nature has no longer an independent ontological status. This is opposed to Campbell's 'natural selection epistemology'. From this it is shown that there holds an incompleteness theorem for physical laws similar to Gödels incompleteness theorem for mathematical axioms, i.e., there is no definitive or object 'theory of everything'.
This constructivist approaches to cognition will allow a coherent and consistent model of both cognitive and organic evolution. Whereas the classical view sees the two evolution rather dichotomously (for ex.: most scientists see cognitive evolution converging towards a definitive world picture, whereas organic evolution obviously has no specific focus (the 'pride of creation').

Reasoning and Learning

Bernard Scott

Gordon Pask's Conversation Theory: A Domain Independent Constructivist Model of Human Knowing

Although it is conceded (as argued by many) that distinct knowledge domains do present particular problems of coming to know, in this paper it is argued that it is possible (and useful) to construct a domain independent model of the processes of coming to know, one in which observers share understandings and do so in agreed ways. The model in question is part of the conversation theory (CT) of Gordon Pask. CT, as a theory of theory construction and communication, has particular relevance for foundational issues in science and science education. CT explicitly propounds a "radical constructivist" (RC) epistemology. A brief account is given of the main tenets of RC and CT's place in that tradition and the traditions of cybernetics. The paper presents a brief non-technical account of the main concepts of CT including elaborations by Laurillard and Harri-Augstein and Thomas. As part of CT, Pask also elaborated a methodology - knowledge and task analysis - for analysing the structure of different knowledge domains; this methodology is sketched in outline.

Hans Rudi Fischer

Abductive Reasoning as a Way of Worldmaking

The author deals with the operational core of logic, i.e. its diverse procedures of inference, in order to show that logically false inferences may in fact be right because - in contrast to logical rationality - they actually enlarge our knowledge of the world. This does not only mean that logically true inferences say nothing about the world, but also that all our inferences are invented hypotheses the adequacy of which cannot be proved within logic but only pragmatically. In conclusion the author demonstrates, through the relationship between rule-following and rationality, that it is most irrational to want to exclude the irrational: it may, at times, be most rational to think and infer irrationally. Focussing on the operational aspects of knowing as inferring does away with the hiatus between logic and life, cognition and the world (reality) - or whatever other dualism one wants to invoke -: knowing means inferring, inferring means rule-governed interpreting, interpreting is a constructive, synthetic act, and a construction that proves adequate (viable) in the "world of experience", in life, in the praxis of living, is, to the constructivist mind, knowledge. It is the practice of living which provides the orienting standards for constructivist thinking and its judgments of viability. The question of truth is replaced by the question of viability, and viability depends on the (right) kind of experiential fit.

Page created 06 Feb 2001 by Alexander Riegler, last update 13 Nov 2013 by Alexander Riegler