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Is Reality a Social Construction ?

 
 
Hazlitt
 
  1  
Reply Mon 2 Dec, 2002 01:06 am
Lola, you said the following (perhaps Blatham said it too):

"But if we do not believe in an ultimate or absolute truth, an independent external reality, as Blatham says, then there is no basis for the search for knowledge. Is this what you're saying?"

I often see arguments like this, and I always think them fallacious. It seems to me that the argument is: X must be true because if X is untrue then Y is true, and it is simply unthinkable that Y could be true.

In this case: there must be something that we call absolute truth or external reality because if there is no absolute truth then there is no "basis for the search for knowledge," and we all agree, after all, that there must be a basis for the search for knowledge. Why, I find myself asking, must we have absolute truth in order to search for knowledge. Are we to fold up and die because we cannot be sure of the existence of absolute truth?

Why is it not possible that there is no way of knowing the absolute truth or external reality for sure (if, indeed, it exists), and that when we pursue our quest for knowledge, we do so knowing that anything we learn has about it an ultimate uncertainty or tentativeness.

You can see, I am no skilled philosopher, but I have always been skeptical about our ability to perceive accurately that which we call external reality, and about our use of language to describe that which we think we perceive. I have lived with this degree of skepticism for many years and feel satisfied, and do not miss having certainty about the external world.

In order to be able to operate in life, I simply take the practical step of treating that which we refer to as the external world as if it were, in fact, real. It all seems to work out pretty well. And after all, what works is what counts.
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Setanta
 
  1  
Reply Mon 2 Dec, 2002 06:22 am
Much as i discount the arguments about "perception based" or "linguistically based" reality, i cannot help but agree with Hazlitt's argument here. I especially appreciate:

Quote:
I have always been skeptical about our ability to perceive accurately that which we call external reality, and about our use of language to describe that which we think we perceive. I have lived with this degree of skepticism for many years and feel satisfied, and do not miss having certainty about the external world.


I go along with this, although i don't consider it a basis for going to that extreme of hubristic human conceit which says that, therefore, reality only exists in our perception, or abilities of expression, or our linguistic consensus . . .
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Ethel2
 
  1  
Reply Mon 2 Dec, 2002 06:56 am
Hazlett,

You have no argument from me about our ability to perceive external reality with accuracy. And about this, I thought I was clear. I don't believe I said we could know absolute truth in science or otherwise. Actually, I believe I said the opposite. I'm saying that we are aiming at a truth to which we can come always closer but never attain.

Skepticism is absolutely necessary in the pursuit of knowledge. Without it, we have dogma and no room at all for future discovery.
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Kara
 
  1  
Reply Mon 2 Dec, 2002 08:05 am
Great discussion, but I'm running behind. I read only the first part of Goldman's article, just now, then went on to follow the postings to this point.

I was pleased to see Time introduced by blatham. I do not see how anyone can discuss objective or subjective reality without attempting to parse the influence of time on the matter. Are we looking "objectively" at a reality that is already past? Am I, during the instant of my existence as it occurs on the scale of time as we perceive it, able to form any credible judgement of reality unless I have found a mystical reality that bridges objective and subjective and which is still "known" only to me?

I find compelling the thought that we can have secondary understanding of truths and can live with that idea as we seek primary truths or even a primary Truth. Truth in this sense means an ultimate understanding; and yet one must accept that there could be further understandings beyond the ultimate. They are just as yet undiscovered or unconsidered. We live with multiple hypotheses every day as we live through time: we assume, first of all, that the next minute from now will happen. We construct a reality that allows us to move and act with purpose in spite of the fact that we see, all around us, evidence that the unexpected is as likely to occur as what we anticipate. We force ourselves to believe that there is order in an existence that often belies that a priori belief.

We build a frame around our lives to give meaning to seeming chaos. If we remove that frame (Who is the Zen writer who discusses this? Alan ...?) we might better glimpse ultimate "reality." But this frame, this construct, allows us to get through the day without pondering each thought and action anew, and it allows us to understand other people who are doing the same thing, even if their frame is different from ours. (On the other hand, I cannot comprehend the "frame" of a radical Islamist who believes that his frame constitutes the only "reality.")

Back after I read Goldman's article.
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blatham
 
  1  
Reply Mon 2 Dec, 2002 08:30 am
Setanta...Not the slightest offence taken...these are slippery matters indeed and any certainty that I'm correct in anything but the most general claims would be misplaced.

I've approached this question from two different directions over the last decade or so. The first is the one which most here seem also to have adopted - that we can achieve approximations of a real and independent external world - the Matrix brain-in-a-vat thesis isn't very compelling. And obviously we can't make the claim that no truth is available to us because that claim is itself a truth claim. And, even if things are intimately tied to an observer at the quantum level, or if 'particles' aren't really stuff but just localized areas of energy, that doesn't mean the Kenworth coming at my car won't hurt big.

But...I have, in the last half decade, become increasingly drawn to conundrums that have popped up in my attempts to get a better grip on subjective consciousness. Unfortunately, I have a meager noggin (and spend too much time in pursuit of legs like Lola's) so these notions are really very wispy indeed. Any attempts I've made to work them up into a scheme that anyone (not stoned) finds compelling has so far met with dismal failure.
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Algis Kemezys
 
  1  
Reply Mon 2 Dec, 2002 08:34 am
No it's just a fignewten of your imagination.
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Setanta
 
  1  
Reply Mon 2 Dec, 2002 08:39 am
blatham wrote:
Any attempts I've made to work them up into a scheme that anyone (not stoned) finds compelling has so far met with dismal failure.


Hmmmm . . . not stoned, eh? Say, why don't we take this subject up again about, oh, say . . . 8 p.m. eastern? (Zat time enough fer you to git home and . . . uh . . . get in the proper frame of mind?)
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blatham
 
  1  
Reply Mon 2 Dec, 2002 09:20 am
"Doubt is not a very agreeable state, but certainty is a ridiculous one." Voltaire

http://chronicle.com/free/v49/i14/14b00701.htm
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fresco
 
  1  
Reply Mon 2 Dec, 2002 01:06 pm
I humbly draw your attention back to a key issue in the thesis: that
"reality IS an interaction".

Example:1 "X crosses the road after checking for no vehicles"

Who observes this "event" ?

Answers
a. Someone interested in X (socially interactive with)
b. X himself (X observes himself as another social being)
c. NOT just anybody!

What does each word or phrase mean - "crosses" "road" "checking" "no traffic".

Answer - they are all shared cultural concepts.

Now I put it to you that this pragmatic "reality frame" that we utilise always has an interactive basis because of the simple fact the "function" of perception is to predict outcomes of interactions.

Example 2: "X observes a rainbow"

Who observes this event".

Answer: Perhaps only X ,who was in a particular location at a particular time with a particular perceptual apparatus.

What does "observe" and "rainbow" mean? X in fact "reports" his experience to himself using the culturally acquired term "rainbow". Perhaps he evisages his future report to another. Perhaps he predicts to himself rain is on the way. Perhaps (as a religious Jew) he praises his God with an appropriate blessing. ...
These are all interactions !

NO INTERACTION = NO EVENT= NO REALITY!

So the question is - can we define events (interactions) in culture free terms?

In as much as we are all "the same animal" it may be possible to classify "basic" events which satisfy common species needs in this manner. However the extrapolation of cultural relativity and its role in defining "reality" can continue into the realm of comparative zoology. i.e. The reality of humans MUST be different from the reality of whales, ants, and bacteria etc becuase their interactive needs are different.

So instead of "objective" or "subjective" reality we need a concept of "game rules". The reality of "tennis" is dependendent on its interaction rules which are common to all games at all levels.
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Hazlitt
 
  1  
Reply Mon 2 Dec, 2002 01:26 pm
Blatham, I , too, feel that I have spent a lifetime looking for the answer to questions like the one being discussed here, with the result that, although I may be slightly more enlightened than I was 50 years ago, I am no closer to the answers.

I think of the thought of Alfred North Whitehead who said something like this (I paraphrase roughly form memory): Every generation has certain assumptions about reality, and the philosophers of that age build their philosophies upon those assumptions, and the discussions of that age are carried on on the basis of those assumptions. The next age comes along, the old assumptions are questioned, new assumptions replace them, new conclusions are drawn, and new philosophies arise. The original question, if it is still taken seriously, is never answered once and for all.

Even though the philosophical outlook may be dismal, we can always choose the joy of living. Last night we went to see (and hear) 42nd Street. Now, there is something that will lift the spirit. But, that's another thread.
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Hazlitt
 
  1  
Reply Mon 2 Dec, 2002 01:31 pm
Sorry, fresco, for the diversion.
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fresco
 
  1  
Reply Mon 2 Dec, 2002 01:58 pm
I don't think it was a "diversion" because you illustrate the difficulty of "the involved observer". We are perhaps like pilots of planes who fail to take account of their own perceptual limitations and ignore "instruments" which contradict messages from our senses.
But note also that all instruments (perceptual enhancers) serve specific needs of the pilot. The "data" they provide is only "meaningful" with respect to such needs.

Now if you argue that there can only be "truth" if our direction or "purpose" was clear then I might agree with you. However we should perhaps take on board at this juncture the Einstein quotation
"If we knew what we we were doing it wouldn't be called research would it ?"
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Ethel2
 
  1  
Reply Mon 2 Dec, 2002 04:31 pm
I agree with Einstein on this, and it's a wonderful quotation. But isn't this what many of us have been saying all along? At least I thought that's what I said, but maybe I didn't make myself as clear as Einstein. I wonder why? He certain has said it all in one concise sentence. But I'm not clear, Fresco on one thing. Are we talking about our ability to know the truth? Or are we talking about the existence of truth? These are two entirely different matters.
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husker
 
  1  
Reply Mon 2 Dec, 2002 04:37 pm
Well this this just as clear as mud in my eye :-)
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fresco
 
  1  
Reply Mon 2 Dec, 2002 05:48 pm
Lola

"Truth" is surely a "successful prediction of outcome of an interaction". Thus it is "true" that " rocks sink" is as much that I predict a scenario where some agent interacts ("physically") with a "rock" and "water". (Note here that this would not be "true" of all liquids)Trivially it is "true" that Henry VIII had six wives because I "predict" the scenario of "verification" in a history book.
So in as much as I am able conceive of an interaction and its possible outcomes I can seek "truth". However "truth" only "exists" relative to particular observers who may or may not agree what a "successful prediction" may be. Again "trivially" most of us would agree that "thunder" follows "lightning" except if we are blind or deaf, but it is these very "exceptions" which are the essence of the relative nature of "truth" and "reality". and the role of " consensus".
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Ethel2
 
  1  
Reply Mon 2 Dec, 2002 06:05 pm
It certainly is true, Fresco, that a truth is a "successful prediction of outcome of an interaction" and it's an even clearer truth if the predicted outcome can be replicated over and over again. But the concept of TRUTH in the abstract is not the same as a specific truth. If you combine this element with that element under these conditions, you get X reaction. And this can be done again and again with no variation that can't be explained as environmentally caused, then we have as close a "truth" as we can hope to have. But these observations of our natural world are all derivatives of truth that exists, but can never be fully known. In this sense, TRUTH is not a predition of anyone, but rather simply, the way it is.
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patiodog
 
  1  
Reply Mon 2 Dec, 2002 06:51 pm
If something is hot and touches something else, that thing will become hot, too. Even animals would seem to verify this through their actions. That's as much reality as I need. As to the nature of stuff, for the most part the consensus is working out pretty well -- though it might be nice if we could all agree that the sun didn't go down until 8:00 or so in the winter in Washington. I'll have to talk to those daylight savings folks about this....
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husker
 
  1  
Reply Mon 2 Dec, 2002 06:54 pm
are we going to start talking about theorems?
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husker
 
  1  
Reply Mon 2 Dec, 2002 07:04 pm
Mathematics is inadequate to describe the universe, since mathematics is an abstraction from natural phenomena.
Also, mathematics may predict things which don't exist, or are impossible in nature.
Ludovico delle Colombe Criticizing Galileo.
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dyslexia
 
  1  
Reply Mon 2 Dec, 2002 07:12 pm
If the world is irrational, we can never know it--either it or its
irrationality.
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