Introducing Constructivism

What is it? 

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that studies knowledge. Constructivism is a type of epistemology – a philosophical viewpoint about how we know about the world. The idea of philosophy may turn some of you off, but bear with me – this is one of the cornerstones of my research.*

Constructivism is in between realism and solipsism. Realism is the belief that there is a world external to our perceptions, and that our senses impart awareness of that world. Solipsism, essentially the polar opposite, holds that the mind is the only thing that can be known for sure, and knowledge about anything beyond the mind is uncertain.

The basic idea of constructivism is that our knowledge of the world is composed of mental models that explain the way we experience the world. This differs from realism because constructivism doesn’t model the external world itself, rather our perception of it. Constructivism also differs from solipsism, because it doesn’t deny the existence of a real world external to our perceptions. However,  it holds that our only experience of that world is mediated by our senses. Therefore, it is impossible to have knowledge of the external world as it exists beyond our senses.

Why is it interesting for science? 

Let’s think of scientific knowledge specifically as a collection of constructed models. If this is the case, what would that entail?

First, we can ask what the purpose of our model is. The general answer is to make sense of our sensory perceptions – to explain how we experience the world. But this answer, for many, includes an unstated assumption: by making sense of the world, we enhance our ability to change, influence, or control it. This reveals another purpose of model construction: control. In the case of disease, for example, the reason we do research is to cure, treat, or prevent disease. This line of thinking unearths many assumptions to be questioned: what counts as an explanation, or a cause? How is that related to purpose? How is it related to understanding?

Next, if these models represent the way we interact with an external reality (rather than the external reality itself) that introduces the idea that multiple, differing models of the same thing can happily coexist and both be “right”. In that case, the differences come from different observers, and perhaps the different types of measurements they have chosen to take. This is a radically different way of thinking about scientific knowledge than the traditional view of objective representations of reality, separate from any observer.

If we question the objectivity of science, we must explore the consequences of acknowledging that it is subjective or arbitrary. This is easy to see in some situations. For example, whenever a subject is being researched, there are infinitely many questions that may be investigated. However, the scientist chooses one or a few to focus on. How is that choice made? It is subjective, based on the valuations and justifications and existing models of reality of that individual.  Even the most rational exploration of possibile questions must narrow the field of possibilities in an arbitrary manner at some point.

This line of questioning could continue ad infinitum. But most scientists don’t stop to think about the way they do science, or the origin of their mental models. This is the impetus for second-order science, a new domain of science founded on the ideas of constructivism. The aim is to expand the scope of science, leading to innovation and increased reliability and robustness in research.

One of the new aims of my project is to apply the ideas and methods of second-order science to biology, focussing specifically on immunology. While I am very aware of the role that philosophy has to play in this endeavor, I suspect it will not be a focal point in the work I produce, simply because at this stage it would be a distraction for a biological audience. Nevertheless, I will continue to post about the philosophical roots of my project, because they have a huge impact on the way it is developing.


*I am not an expert in philosophy by any means: these descriptions are necessarily limited.

Photo credit: Michael Kalus via / CC BY-NC-SA


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