Re: Whither TRUTH????
Sat, 13 Apr 1996 15:36:53 -0500

At 08:26 AM 4/12/95 -0500, you wrote:
>> With this posting, Jim invokes the notion of "utility" to provide a
>>standard by which we evaluate our claims about the world. I assume that he
>>means something like "utility for explaining input from our world". I've
>>always found this idea attractive. I recently viewed a documentary about a
>>community of people in South America (what some might consider to be a
>>"primitive" group). Because of contact with Westerners, the community has
>>sufferred many diseases to which they lack immunity. Such conditions are
>>conceptualized as the results of spirits which inhabit the body. To
>>eliminate such conditions, a shaman performs an elaborate ritual to drive
>>out the spirits.
>> Now, if we use the notion of utility to evaluate our claims about the
>>world, we might say that the belief in spirits is a more or less useful way
>>for these persons to understand the source of what we call illness or
>>disease -- it provides a way of understanding the conditions and a way of
>>reacting to them. However, at least from my vantage point, it (and I don't
>>have evidence here) probably not particularly useful as a means of
>>eliminating those conditions we call diseases. I don't think that the
>>concept of spirit is a very useful one for explaining the source of death
>>due to what we call illness.
>> Therefore, when we speak of utility, we must always specify, useful for
>>what (I'm not saying Jim didn't do this, I'm just making the statement).
>>An explanation may be useful for one purpose (provide a coherent
>>explanation of death) but not for another (explaining why the person died;
>>providing a framework to forestall death). And so, some explanations are
>>better than others. I believe that the concept of illness is a better, more
>>useful explanation than the concept of spirits in explaining the causes of
>>death in the Amazon. Even though I acknwledge that data or "facts" are not
>>autonomous or independent of theoretical presupositions, I must say that
>>the data of Western science provides a set of constraining conditions that
>>make the concept of disease preferable to the concept of spirit as a way
>>of explaining death in the Amazon.
>> Do my statements contradict a constructivist analysis? Am I getting
>>too close to empiricism? Thoughts on the subject?
>>Mike Mascolo
>>Merrimack College

Mike: Your ideas were very thought-provoking. It seems to me that
Western medical explanations are preferable to those people who were trained
and reared in Western cultural traditions because those explanations match
and are cohesive with the American-European, scientific construct of the
universe. Additionally, to those who are trained and reared in shamanic
culture, the explanations utilizing spirits are preferable because they
match and are cohesive with spiritual ways of contruing the universe.
However, as one who has been influenced profoundly by both Western
scientific and shamanic/spiritual cultures, I view both systems as
containing *truth*. I experience the utility and the logic of both ways of
viewing disease.
Avenues of psychological inquiry that appear to bring together these
two differing world views of illness are psychoneuroimmunology and other
arenas of mind-body study. You may have read or heard of cases where
Western medicine could not "save" the life of a Native American because
he/she did not believe in the utility of it. Apparently, one's belief
system has something to do with how well one responds to treatment,
regardless of what the treatment is; as more neurotransmitter receptor sites
are discovered throughout the body, we can make "Western scientific" sense
of this phenomenon. Discovery of such a *metaconstruct* (e.g., there appear
to be physiological mechanisms by which mental beliefs may effect physical
functioning) allows one to construe both systems as simultaneously
functional within their respective cultures. This metaconstruct provides a
bridge that perhaps can loosen the tight constructs of a strict empiricist!
Our understanding of constructivism should include an understanding of
the cultural constructs, in addition to strictly individual constructs.
There appear to be many constructs that we share culturally, as well as many
that are individual and unique. Even more importantly, we need to
understand the complete construct system of the individual. Single
constructs do not exist in a vacuum: they are part of a comprehensive
framework that forms one's world view. For example, I can see that it is
very difficult for many Western academics to understand, much less embrace,
spiritual beliefs. A very high percentage of American psychologists (over
80%, I think) construe the universe as lacking spiritual beings, whereas it
is estimated that over 70% of the general population construe the universe
with nonphysical entities (e.g., God). This is quite a difference, almost a
reversal of constructs! It seems that Western academia, particularly
science, trains people to construe the universe in particular ways that may
be dramatically different from the ways that non-academics or non-Westerners
construe their universes. Yet Western science cannot corner the market on
*truth*, even if one is an objectivist or strict empiricist!
The point I am trying to make is that it may be very difficult for
some people to expand their constructs enough to include alternative
*truths*, but isn't that what constructivism is about? It is conceivable to
me that all manner of *truths* are simultaneously *correct*, accurate, or
functional because they are each a facet of the *ultimate truth*--if such
truth exists, and we may not ever have the capacity to know whether it does
(e.g., the story of the six blind men and the elephant). Perhaps we could
think of the *ultimate truth* as simply a metaconstruct or superordinate
construct that allows us to organize subordinate constructs that appear in
Linda Palmer, Louisiana Tech University