Friday, April 17, 2009

AND WHAT IS REAL?

Two Posts back, in “Law Naturally” I had touched upon the philosopher Richard Rorty’s “liberal ironism”, the ‘stance’ of anybody who really ‘gets it’: there really isn’t anything out there in existence that has such a strong reality of its own that it can be called There. All we humans have got is what we agree that we’ve got (although he sort of leans toward what all the folks who ‘get it’ agree that they’ve got , and that the rest of us should get).

This approach of his relies on a concept called “social constructionism”, which some other thinkers then erected into a theory called “social constructivism”.

“Social constructionism” is the fruit of an observation made about humans: that to some extent and in some ways we all wind up – consciously or without much thought – agreeing on certain things, which we then lump into the general working mental file called ‘reality’ that each of us keeps, and since we all have the same ‘agreed-upon’ stuff in the file about this or that particular thing, then that becomes ‘real’ for us as a group.

So, for example, “gold”: the stuff on its own is worthless; but because we all ‘agree’ or have been taught to ‘agree’ that it is valuable, then it has become a material of great value to us; ‘gold as valuable’ is a ‘reality’ for us, and constitutes part of our daily working ‘reality’. It’s possible, if we all put our minds to it, that one day gold would cease to be valuable, and some other material (iron, say) would be considered the benchmark of value.

(This can get kind of complicated: if the world’s governments one day decide that the US dollar isn’t a sufficiently stable currency, then they could all agree to go and find some other currency to ‘agree on’ and make that currency the world’s reserve currency. Thus ‘reality’ could change in a lot of ways very quickly. But there’s a lot more involved, and here I’m just using this as a vivid example of social constructionism, not making economic predictions.)

This social-constructionist thought works a lot better in the realm of social sciences and literature and such non-material fields; rocks, after all, are not ‘solid’ just because people ‘agree’ that they’re solid; water doesn’t freeze at 32 degrees F just because people ‘agree’ that it should; nitroglycerine won’t not-explode just because folks nearby ‘agree’ that it would be a bad thing if it did. But it works in matters of ‘opinion’, ‘conventional wisdom’, and the myriad things about which we do usually ‘agree’ just in order to keep what we experience as ‘the world’ and ‘life’ predictable enough so that we can get things done and get through the days.

It has to be used carefully, though, because you can never be sure when the ‘layers’ are going to shade over into something with more ‘essence’. ‘Reality’ is like a house: some walls are ‘decorative’ or non-essential – they can be moved or punched through if you need to or want to. Other walls, though, are ‘carrying walls’, and if you mess with those then the structural stability of the house is weakened - which you don’t ever want to do. Not, anyway, without a lot of serious planning and supervision.

It doesn’t work so well, then, in the physical sciences because the physical sciences deal with ‘things’ that have a certain ‘reality’ that is independent of what humans ‘agree’ about.

You can get some interesting cross-over in the theoretical sciences : quantum physics and cosmological theories – dealing with the very smallest quanta of matter and the very largest – wind up using a lot of commonly-agreed-upon concepts (among the relevant scientists, anyway) that aren’t actually proven to exist, at least at this point in time. Various named subatomic particles aren’t actually there to display in the museum; and String Theory’s ‘strings’ aren’t actually known to exist; but they are concepts that seems to ‘work’ as a provisional working hypothesis for understanding some things as best we can at the moment.

Social constructivism, however, has taken that fairly astute and useful set of observations and drawn some huge conclusions. This ‘constructivism’ is at the heart of the ‘postmodern’ take on life and the world and on reality. This ‘constructivism’ says that there is nothing, whatsoever, at all, that is ‘real’ in and of itself, and everything is all just something we all agree on, whether we know it or not. Sort of like Scrooge calling Marley’s ghost “an undigested bit of beef” (which is a diss I’d never make to a ghost when I’m standing there in my pj’s). What people take for ‘reality’ is simply what – whether they know it or not – they have ‘agreed to’ call reality.

And, the postmodern theory goes, if that’s all ‘reality’ is, then it ain’t but a thang to change it. Folks just have to change their minds, or be made to (for their own good, of course), and ‘reality’ or ‘history’ or ‘life’ or ‘people’ will change. Poof – presto, as the carnival magicians used to say.

This may all sound kind of ‘cutting edge’ and high-falutin’, but there’s an old Eastern Indian story that dealt with this sort of thing quite some time ago, The Ten Blind Persons and the Elephant. Once upon a time, ten blind persons came upon a large elephant in the jungle. One of them touched its tusk and reported that the elephant was hard and smooth and pointed at the tip; another touched its trunk and said that the elephant was long and sinuous; another touched the ear and said that the elephant was like a huge leathery butterfly; another touched its stomach and said that it was like a leathery house; another the leg and said that it was like a tree; and another the tail and said that the elephant was thin and twisty like a snake. (Yes, they rather seem to have missed some parts along the way from stem to stern, but perhaps the Indians left that out of the story out of a respect for delicate Western sensibilities.)

Now they could never all agree on what the elephant was; at least not on their own – it would take someone with sight to explain to them that they were all ‘correct’ in their observations, and then – if they were an agreeable bunch – the ten of them could settle on a ‘reality’ about the elephant.

But in no way, ever, would they have concluded that there was no elephant at all, just a bunch of their ‘observations’. Nor would they ever have simply gotten into a team huddle a few yards away and agreed to agree that the elephant did not exist at all; something was there, however they were uncertain as to what it was. One of the good things about being a peasant is that you sort of have a gut sense of what is ridiculous, and dangerously ridiculous, and you learn very early on to avoid such crap – or else you don’t survive to pass your ignorance on to a new generation. Even if you can’t figure them out, some things exist – and don’t take kindly to being dissed.

Alas, university professors (and Beltway pols) don’t have to worry much about the consequences of ridiculousness. Unlike peasants, they are very nicely insulated, thank you very much, and if there are consequences stemming from anything ridiculous that they might say or pass a law about … well, consequences, famously, flow downhill (which is maybe why the Capitol was built on the top of a hill).

So ‘social constructivism’ is a more or less ridiculous conclusion made from a relatively astute set of observations.

Once you get away from the physical sciences, as I said, things can get a little iffy: what we generally take to be ‘real’ about non-material stuff can in some ways be available for change if we all agree: we may all agree that ‘gold’ should be replaced by some other metal as the benchmark of value; we may all agree that 18 year-olds can drink alcoholic beverages (although it gets even more dicey if we ask if they should drink alcoholic beverages); we may all agree to drive on the left-hand side of the road like the Brits.

But there are certain things that the sane among us would never ‘agree’ to: you can’t fly a jet aircraft in reverse; you can’t fly a 747 like it was a fighter jet, or load a hundred tons of passengers and cargo on an F-16; you can’t stay dry if you jump into a lake. Some areas of ‘reality’ seem to include ‘essences’ that are independent of human preference and will and opinion.

This makes for a complex – as they say in the military – Operational Space. You really have to know what part of the OpSpace you’re operating in, so as to know just where your ‘will’ might have some input, and just where it won’t. Like submarine captains who realize that there are layers of water to the undersea ocean and different layers of water behave differently and can cause your instruments to behave a bit oddly (so you have to compensate for that or avoid the area).

But all this complexity is bad for a revolution: when you’re in the business of whipping up usefully large groups of people so that they will reliably agree with you or at least do your will, you don’t want complexity screwing up the process. And when you’re dealing with pols, you’re also usually better off not getting too complex.

Social constructivism has never caught on in areas where folks have to deal with hard, independent realities – chem labs, practical physics, engineering, and that sort of thing. But it caught on big about 35 years ago in literature and philosophy departments, where the subject matter is much less ‘material’.

“Facts” can be played with like play-doh in those precincts of the university; Marley’s ghost can be laughed at in the bright, cheerible, perky noonday light of a social science or literature or philosophy classroom in a way that it can’t be laughed at in the chill midnight light of a physics or geology lab. Which might seem strange in a way, since many of the folks who made the literature, the philosophy, or the history all those centuries ago were very independent, and insightful. But since they’re not here now, they can – by a certain type of temperament – be ignored just as if they were only that undigested bit of beef.

So where the constuctionist will always be alert to the possibility that some matters, many probably, that folks would call ‘reality’ are actually to some greater or lesser degree a result of that ‘agreement’ we discussed above, the constructivist will say that there are no ‘facts’, nothing that has a ‘reality’ independent of what people agree to give it. And that therefore people can – and will – ‘get it’ and change the terms of their agreement.

You’d imagine that such an obnoxious and – face it – more than a little ridiculous ‘school’ of thought wouldn’t last long in a country of educated folk, and in universities where a lot of people have spent a lot of their lives trying to think and experiment and get a solid grasp on life. And ordinarily that would be a reasonable assumption.

But as has been said many times on this site, forty years ago the Democrats were desperate for reliable political voting-blocs, and they were pretty much willing to swallow anything so long as they could be sure of votes. They adopted the ‘postmodernists’ because the Ideological Feminists made up the most clever and determined representatives of what looked to be 51% of the nation’s voters – which is a huge cushion of safety to a pol; it’s like a lion being assured of a permanent, static herd of gazelles right there near the waterhole, always available for dinner without too much exertion and the running and the chasing and the claws and all that. What’s not to like?

So postmodernism and social constructivism got the quiet but full support of the Beltway and all its powers.

Now there are a lot of social issues that can be affected by people changing their minds: Southerners no longer think that ‘reality’ includes, or requires, that black folks drink from different water fountains or ride in the back of buses or in separate railway cars on trains. And that was a good change in the terms of ‘agreement’.

But then you get to matters that are not so much social as they are Matters Beyond. So, for example, if we keep the ten Indian persons and the elephant in mind: if everybody has a different idea of ‘virtue’, can it really be decisively concluded that there is no such thing as ‘virtue’? If, for that matter, there are many different ideas of God, does that decisively demonstrate that there is no God? Perhaps we are at this stage still too ‘blind’ to have put the whole thing together into a working ‘picture’ upon which everyone can agree. But, it seems to me, it’s not a good idea to do to God what would be a baaad idea to do to the elephant or to Marley’s ghost.

As you can see, you can quickly reach a point where you’ve passed beyond the useful tinkering with group perceptions and ‘agreements’, and started to pull the rug out from under the entire human enterprise. Because no human civilization has ever gotten along without some picture of, some openness to, the Beyond. And while you want to have a certain respect for persons called Professors at universities, you don’t necessarily want to take a literature or philosophy professor’s advice on whether there is a Beyond. If they told you there was no elephant, would you walk up and kick it … somewhere?

So there are some areas or layers of existence that seem to be ‘essential’, that seem to have an ‘essence’ of their own, regardless of what humans might think or wish. The good submarine captain needs to know the layers confronting the vessel … and deal with that accordingly.

Social constructivism can rapidly turn from the ridiculous to the dangerously ridiculous. Jean Paul Sartre pooh-poohed what he called the human “spirit of seriousness” as did Friedrich Nietzsche when he condemned the human “spirit of gravity”. People, these two meant, can take things too seriously; they can consider mere concepts to have an existence independent of human will; they can thereby wind up ascribing more power to ‘history’ than to human will; and by making the mistake of accepting that there are absolute and objective realities independent of human will, they can undermine or shortchange the role of human will in shaping the world and making history.

Whew.

They meant well. But that’s never enough. Not hardly.

First off, it gives people the impression that you don’t need to take life seriously. And I’ve mentioned on several occasions that this country, for one, seems to have lost its ability to be serious – it can kill and imprison and invade , yes – but it doesn’t seem to have the old personal, professional, moral and adult seriousness as previous generations have had (no, I’m not including the Boomers as ‘serious’).

Second, they oversimplify the OpSpace. There are indeed layers of life, of existence, of being, that have much more ‘essence’ to them and not so much play-doh. We humans can’t quite ‘totally’ figure those layers out, but that doesn’t mean they’re not out there. And some of them may well be out There. I wouldn’t want either Sartre or Nietzsche commanding any submarine I was on. Or any plane: there are layers of ‘air’ that very much have their own ‘essence’ as well, and you don’t just put a plane in ‘drive’ and figure that it goes from Point A to Point B without any complications from the layers of air that it may pass through. That’s why you can’t just figure that if you can drive a car you can fly a plane just as easily.

Third, they give the impression that if humans set their mind to it – or are forced to change their minds – then just about everything of importance in existence and being and history can be changed, and changed just exactly the way people would like them to be changed, with no complications. This ‘dimension’ humans inhabit is a lot more complicated than that.

Fourth, thinking that they have ‘figured it all out’ makes them cocky and overconfident, and maybe even proud. And that’s not a really good attitude for facing the wide, booming, buzzing world. History can turn on you like an elephant that’s been kicked once too often in the behind.

I’m not saying that humans can’t often easily effect changes, and improve life (if they’re lucky). I’m saying that humans need to know the OpSpace and know what will change with reasonable probability of success, and what won’t. And some ‘change’ may actually work out to make things worse; there’s no guarantee that all change will turn out for the best, or according to a ‘best-case scenario’.

It’s a verrrry demanding business: figuring what needs to be changed, what can be changed, at not too terrible a cost, and with a reasonable probability that it will turn out more or less the way we’d like it to. You learn that quickly enough in a chemistry lab, or in an operating room in a hospital. When SUVs were a new thing, a lot of them rolled over because a lot of folks didn’t really take seriously just how much they did not handle like a regular automobile – their size and shape gave them, so to speak, something of a ‘mind of their own’, and a driver, especially at highway speeds, had to take that difference seriously.

You can get mighty cocky if you have convinced yourself that there’s nothing out ‘there’ except what you can see and what you have come to expect. Existence, history, and life bounce more like footballs, kind of unpredictably. For that matter, so does the human self.

With all due respect to the late Mr. Disney, this world is no place for children. And you should not remain one very long. Nobody should.

NOTE

There’s a decent and readable extended discussion of Social Constructionism and Social Constructivism on Wikipedia, with suggestions for further reading.

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