(above) A stone stela on a tiny rock island off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada. When the apparently ancient artifact was cut open, a mechanical, geometric object was reportedly found inside. But was its presence invented? Why is it important to know which is true? Can we ever know, for sure?
Heinz von Foerster told me a story once about one of his PhD. advisees. This young man had written what Heinz considered a brilliant dissertation in the field of physics and all that remained for him to get his doctorate degree was to present it to his faculty committee for their approval. In the course of his lucid presentation, he said, “And when Isaac Newton invented gravity….” One of his professors interrupted him, saying, “You mean, when Isaac Newton discovered gravity….” The young candidate replied, “No, Professor. When Newton invented gravity….” He failed the examination. After being given pause to reflect on his error, he again met with his faculty committee, and again said, “When Isaac Newton invented gravity….” Again he failed. Frustrated and fearful, he went to see Heinz for advice on what to do. Heinz told him, “The next time you get to the part about Newton, simply say, “And when Isaac Newton discovered gravity….” Next time, the young candidate said exactly that and passed ‘with distinction.’
The point Heinz wanted to make with this story is that the idea of knowledge generally accepted by professors of science and just about everyone else is that the truth—reality—is ‘out there’ and it is our task to find, to discover it. In other words, reality exists independently of us. While Heinz and a number of cognitive scientists would not argue with this idea they would say that it is irrelevant, because the ‘closed’ nature of the human nervous system makes perceiving any reality independent of it impossible. When we look out at the world, what we perceive are our perceptions, nothing more nor less. Hence, Isaac Newton did not discover gravity, a set of phenomena affecting our nervous system, and thus our perceptions, he invented it as a description of these phenomena that, as it turns out, has been agreed upon by a majority of knowledgeable people. Before Newton proposed his theory of gravity, people had other theories explaining the physical attraction of bodies to each other. Most knowledgeable people agreed with them. After Newton, Albert Einstein invented a new description/theory of gravity that most knowledgeable person have come to agree with and accept as true. Eventually there will be a theory that replaces Einstein’s and most knowledgeable people…and so on.
Does reality change with the coming of a new theory describing it and people’s belief in it? Or, are the theories simply wrong? Will there one day be a correct description of the reality that is out there, waiting to be discovered? Modern science does not attempt to answer this question, because it does not consider it relevant to understanding. What is relevant is inventing descriptions that lead to deeper knowledge of how we interact with the phenomena affecting us, including an understanding of understanding. What, after all, is knowledge?
As for the stela on the tiny rock island, we can at least be sure that if enough knowledgeable people believe what was found when it was opened is real, then it will be.