19 June 2007

Mapping Reality

As a song says, “There are images around us in everything we see, some are real and some are fantasy.” What are students mapping if they are mapping reality? (refering to Practical Philosophy)

I have concluded there are three kinds of reality; subjective reality, objective reality and embedded reality. The first, subjective reality is the default perspective that we, as humans, are wired for but is generally agreed to be somewhat misleading. Subjective reality takes the obvious fact of our conscious awareness as the central aspect of reality and looks at the world as being entirely manifested by that consciousness.

The second is one that has emerged as a very powerfully effective tool for apprehending subtle phenomena as attested by the extraordinary success of scientific technologies. Objective reality takes the subtle fact that we can arrive at certain shared understandings of what is real to be more real than any individual understanding. That is to say objective reality relies on the development of widely accepted social proof of what is real rather than any individual decision or opinion about reality.

The objective perspective has recently revealed itself, through the disciplines of cognitive sciences, to be an illusion, as well. The illusory nature of objective reality was revealed by the fact that, contrary to traditional assumptions, we do not perceive reality directly. Rather, what we come to understand as reality is entirely mediated by a complex system of neural filters between the actual “objective” event in the world and our ability to have any meaningful kind of awareness of it.

The third perspective is an emerging one that is not even in general awareness but it is a view that takes our biological embodiment to be a fundamental aspect of our reality and looks at the world from the perspective that we are embedded in a continuum of levels of reality corresponding to different levels of objectively accepted phenomena. That is to say that what is real is made up of (at least) atoms, molecules, cells, individual organisms, communities, societies, ecologies and a planet. In order to describe reality you have to be able to account for how any given phenomenon affects the different levels of reality, how that phenomenon is structured at any given moment, how it’s existence is patterned through time and how it participates in the variety of processes of change from one moment to the next at the different level’s of existence. This perspective is a synthesis of the objective and subjective perspectives because it acknowledges that there is an irreducible complexity in reality and the best we can hope for is arriving at understandings that serve to enhance our well-being rather than cause our ultimate demise.

Even this new perspective is known to be an illusion, but that is not a bad thing. It is an illusion that is a better for understanding the world than either a purely subjective naivete or a purely objective expert perspective. Better in the sense that it is more useful for ensuring our well-being.

So, how do we know what’s real? The short answer is that we don’t. We are simply unable to ever totally and finally determine a distinct boundary between what is real and what is not. Fortunately, we do have a pretty good idea of how to tell what’s real for most practical purposes. The advantage of the embedded perspective is that it can ideally incorporate both the subjective and objective perspectives as useful tools for discerning how to proceed.

So to answer the original question, what students are mapping in my philosophy of education is their own experiences and how they understand them matched against how other people understand their experiences. Teachers are charged with the task of developing a sufficiently trusting and intimate relationship with their students to encourage broad comparisons and mutually assist in refining their processes of making, using, and maintaining their internal maps for effectively navigating in life. Schools are meant to be institutional support mechanisms for the development of this kind of relationship rather than either a way to simply ensure subjective experiences of happiness or meet arbitrary “objective” standards.

The focus of the relationship that develops between the teacher and student is not meant to be focused on the personal interactions between those two people, but on the relationship between the student and the reality in which s/he is embedded. The teacher is presumed to be more skilled at organizing their own mind using the three different perspectives at appropriate times to ensure that they are perceiving accurately, thinking clearly, setting appropriate goals, and taking effective action. The teacher and student work together to observe the expectations that the rest of the world has for them including any objective standards that need to be met, they will record the patterns of subjective experience that help or hinder meeting those expectations and then work to align the different levels of reality to best facilitate meeting the standards in ways that are consistent with the goals and aspirations of the student.

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