I got an interesting email this morning from Peder Johnson. Johnson, a now-retired University of New Mexico cognitive psychologist has been promoting a constructivist epistememology since he first became acquainted with Piaget's work back in the 1970s. It's an epistemological position somewhere between objective realism and solipsism. According to constructivists, all we know are our mental experiences, which are only constrained by reality. There is no means by which we can contact reality directly and, therefore, we can never evaluate its real validity. In short, we live in a fantasy of our own devising.
It's quite a fantasy. Our senses take in somewhere around 400 billion (some scientists think it's as high as a trillion) inputs a second. Obviously, because we cannot handle processing that much information at a conscious level, most of it is either immediately discarded or handled subconsciously. In fact, what actually trickles up to consciousness is about 200 outputs. This means that the vast majority of what actually is—more than 99.99999999999 percent in fact—is hidden from us. Utterly, completely invisible.
In short, we do live inside the matrix—only the matrix isn't built by some super race that wants to turn humans into batteries (though this concept, which has been examined scientifically, is also entirely viable)—we instead live in a matrix of our own creation.
In his email, what Johnson was proposing was a way out, or at least a thought experiment describing a way out. He knows that most people tend to believe that their senses provide them with a direct experience of the world. As he says: "People firmly believe they are in direct contact with reality as it actually exists-they know the truth-end of story."
What if, Johnson wondered we "instituted a country-wide educational program K through 12, that was successful in turning the majority of students into constructionists. In other words, what would happen if we taught people the truth-that there is no one truth.
I found it ironic that Johnson should ask me that question today, since I was already working on some similar ideas.
As readers of this blog may know by now, I run a dog sanctuary with my wife. We have, at any given time, about two dozen animals living with us. And even though our pack is incredibly well-behaved and generally really happy, there is very little in life that prepares one to live with a pack of dogs. in short, it's sort of like living in an alternate reality—specifically one where behaviors that have been with me since childhood are, often, by necessity, routinely disregarded.
Let me give you a simple example. I come from a family of passionate debaters. Normal conversational volume in the house I grew up in was somewhere between Metallica and Motorhead. But with severely traumatized dogs-which are the kind we have in our care-loud voices of any kind can send them into hysterics. This is no joke. When we first started our rescue, we had a dog named Gidget. She had demodectic mange, some kind of neurological disorder and a tendency towards violent seizures. One day, early on, the phone rang. It was for my wife, who was then working out in the garden. I shouted to her to pick up the phone and Gidget had a seizure and nearly died.
Very quickly I started to try to alter my tone of voice. But I had been speaking and, well, shouting, for as long as I can remember, so there was no way to change my tonality by itself. Instead, I had to shift my perspective. I learned to think about how a dog would react to what is coming out of my mouth before I opened my mouth. Since I have no real way of speaking dog, this actually amounted to me disbelieving my own version of reality (where shouting is normal) and start to believe in a version that was fundamentally foreign—a version where I didn't know what was right, I just knew that what I believed was right was probably wrong.
In other words, I learned that my reality was actually not an accurate picture of reality. I learned to doubt what was once truth. While this is merely a small example of what Johnson is proposing, I can tell you from firsthand experience the effects are profound.
The first change was a radical openness to subtle experience. In accepting that I needed to learn to speak dog and in accepting that learning to speak dog was also impossible I instead developed a considerably deeper sense of empathy. Without the veracity of my own truth, I became quite interested in the veracity of another's. I stopped needing to be right about everything and became much more interested in outside possibilities.
Clearly, this has far-reaching effects. You can also see those effects magnified on a political scale by what's now going on in the Middle East.
Writing in the New York Times today, Thomas Friedman points to four forces that are currently reshaping the region. The first of those is, as Friedman says, "the diffusion of technology. The Internet, blogs, YouTube, and text messaging via cellphones, particularly among the young-70 percent of Iranians are under the age of 30-is giving Middle Easterners cheap tools to communicate horizontally, to mobilize politically and to criticize their leaders acerbically, outside of state control."
The point Friedman left out is that all of this horizontal communication also has an effect similar to Johnson's thought experiment and my experience with dog rescue-in giving them access to all these outside opinions it has taught folks in the Middle East that there is a gap between their perception of reality and the actual veracity of reality.
And into this gap, change has arisen-for the first time in history.
So while I don't know the full, far-reaching effects of teaching our children that there is a difference between what their senses tell them and what is actually reality, I do know that rigid behavior and adherence to false dogma becomes an increasingly difficult proposition to handle once doubt enters the equation.
In other words, by teaching our kids a bit of constructivism, some level of doubt becomes part of our baseline interpretation of reality, and out of that doubt some really good things happen.