Friday, 10 March 2006

The Levity of Social Construction

One might take it as a cause for worry that our society has found more ways of saying nothing is true than it has of saying honesty is the best policy. But then by the nature of the first saying, it is useful that it be said under many guises, otherwise its absurdity would be obvious.
As to why nihilism should be embraced, one may suppose that in many cases when it becomes clear to a man that he can no longer maintain his dearly held beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence, and furthermore that the evidence supports beliefs to which he has been bitterly opposed or which will cause him hurt, then he may in bad faith admit neither the falsity of his own beliefs nor the truth of those in opposition thereto, but instead adopt the pyrrhonic stance of denying that any belief can be known to be true or false, a strategic move that to his mind assures a mutual destruction.
One may suspect that it is a defect of character rather than the merit of pyrrhonism itself that leads a man thereto, and that to treat it as an intellectual problem to be tackled with rigorous argumentation would be less effective than to treat it as a breach of etiquette to be frowned upon, alongside blowing one’s nose on a tablecloth or breaking wind at a christening.
The problem of denying the possibility of truth becomes especially acute, however, in reference to those natural phenomena, the denial of whose existence would excite widespread ridicule; for the nihilist will have to contend with these phenomena in a manner consistent with his pretence that nothing is true, lest he invite opprobrium for his inconsistency. One such phenomenon is gravity, and I present the reader with an example of how one might attempt to deny the existence of gravity as a natural phenomenon, whilst attempting to escape ridicule for its denial:
For me (and others like me), gravity exists as a truth because that truth has been constructed, in part through a process of scientific experimentation and in part through a process of social construction that includes experiential ways of knowing.
Mary C. Breunig, “Radical Pedagogy as Praxis”, Radical Pedagogy, Vol. 8:1, Spring 2006.
Now, strictly speaking, as a natural phenomenon, gravity is neither true nor false, it just is. It is our description of the phenomenon of gravity that can be true or false in conformity to the nature of that phenomenon. I take it, then, that Ms Breunig claims to believe that our description of gravity exists as a truth, but here is the scandalous thing: for by the word “truth”, she does not mean what we would take it to mean, namely, that the description captures the nature of that phenomenon, but rather that the description is solely a scientific artefact and a social construct, or in other words, she claims to believe that the description of gravity exists as a truth because it is man-made.
What a seemingly strange thing to say! But since she has redefined for her purpose the word “truth” to mean, not a conformity to reality, but rather a man-made artefact, the import of her words is that she believes the description of gravity is a man-made artefact because it is man-made. This does not say much at all, and we may agree that it is trivially true, and assume this is not what she means to say.
It is notable that she does not claim to believe that our description of gravity is true as regards the natural phenomenon thereof. Furthermore, should it not strike us as odd that someone would claim to believe in the existence of gravity, not because of the impress of the phenomenon itself, but because its description is a construct? This is tantamount to saying that one believes in gravity because one doesn’t know it exists as an objective phenomenon!
In effect, what she suggests is something wholly absurd, in keeping with her description of herself as a radical: to wit, that gravity itself is man-made. But if she had just said, gravity does not exist as a natural phenomenon, she would have left herself open to ridicule. It was important, therefore, that she recast it in a positive light, saying, gravity exists, but it is a man-made construct. This latter is no less contrary to sense than the former, indeed the latter implies the former, but this may not be obvious to the average undergraduate, and thus she might thereby enjoy the appearance of saying something radical, as well as maintaining consistency in her nihlism, without appearing to say something obviously absurd.
Spare a thought for the plight of the nihilist, therefore; for not only has the world destroyed the grounds for his dearly held beliefs, but he must thereafter labour to fashion some semblance of sense out of the absurdity of his newly acquired pretence that nothing is true.