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Construction of Reality

Posted by on Thursday, February 2, 2017 in Academics, College of Arts and Science, Professors.

What is reality and how do we construct it? This seems like a complex and philosophical question, but it’s exactly what we’re trying to answer in my honors seminar, Construction of Reality. Our professor is Dr. Randolph Blake, who teaches in the Department of Psychology.

In our class, the basic assumption we’re operating on is that reality isn’t always absolute, and it can vary from person to person. A person’s reality can be shaped by physical (space, time, biology etc.) and social (race, education etc.) factors. Thus, in the first few weeks of class, Professor Blake introduced the concept of epistemic humility, or the acknowledgement that one person cannot possibly know everything because different people experience reality in different ways. I found this idea especially relevant in the politically tense times we’re living in right now, full of echo chambers on Facebook and the media.

Before jumping into readings, Professor Blake had us write responses to four questions and share them with other students:

  • Describe one profound, personal experience that forced you to think critically about who you actually are and/or what your place in the world really is. How did that experience change you?
  • What book have you read that forced you to think deeply about the nature of reality? Why did that book have an impact on you?
  • Think of a movie that you’ve seen that seriously stretched your ideas about the nature of reality. What was that movie, and why have you selected it?
  • Of the beliefs that you currently hold, which one departs the most from what you thought before you came to embrace that belief?

We mainly talked about the last two questions, and because this is a 16 person class, each of us had the chance to talk about our responses. Even though college presents you with many opportunities to know other people more meaningfully, it’s difficult to do so when you’re inundated with classes, extracurriculars, and job/grad school applications. So it was rewarding for me to gain an insight into the lives of my classmates and see them from a new perspective.

We’ve had a diverse set of readings. We read Flatland, an amazing book about how the number of dimensions we live in can alter our sense of reality, and the book shows how reluctant and hostile people can be in embracing epistemic humility. Here’s Carl Sagan’s brief explanation of this fascinating book!

We also read portions of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn, which analyzes the progress of scientific discovery and how it impacts our conception of reality. The book introduces the notion of paradigm shift in a scientific context, a term we often use in everyday life without fully appreciating its underrated coiner.

The next week, we had Professor Keivan Stassun, a professor of astrophysics at Vanderbilt, drop in for a guest lecture. I avoid physics like the plague (high school PTSD), but Professor Stassun introduced complex concepts, such as the marriage of quantum mechanics and classical physics, in simpler terms for us non-STEM majors. We had an amazing discussion about the expansion of the universe, the multiverse theory, and even the existence of extracurricular life (any other X-Files’ fans out there?!).

Right now, we’re focussing on time and memory, and how their perception varies from person to person. This is not a regular class in which we have a bunch of established textbooks to read from, so one of our readings was an eye-opening and (slightly) unnerving TED talk about how memory can be altered and even falsified. Mind. Blown. (in a good way!)

We also have a final project in which we have to interview someone whose construction of reality differs from ours in a fundamental aspect, such as race, religion, traumatic experiences or even a disability. I am interviewing a close friend of mine, and seeing how this class has challenged me to view reality from different angles, I cannot wait to get to know my friend and her sense of the world more profoundly!

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