Publishing My Critique of Constructivism

Publishing My Critique of Constructivism January 30, 2023

Last week I spoke at Faith Classical Lutheran School in Plano, Texas, on my books Postmodern Times and Post-Christian.  Their high school students study Postmodern Times (which amazed me!), and I thought I would talk about how I updated that book in the sequel.

The school publicist sent out a press release, whereupon an editor of the Dallas Morning News contacted her back, saying that he was interested in the topic and inviting me to write an op-ed piece for the paper.  I was glad to, but I was warned that the paper has a very liberal and progressive bias.

So I set myself a task in experimental writing.  How could I write up my ideas in such a way that they might get through to readers that would be inclined to oppose them?  Specifically, the readers at issue would be the editorial page editors of a major newspaper.  And I would be able to assess whether or not I succeeded.  If I didn’t, they wouldn’t publish the column.

So I put something together.  I wanted to target the notion of “constructivism,” the notion that we construct our own realities.  This idea pervades the  postmodernism I wrote about in 1994 and has been taken to new extremes in contemporary thought today, as I write about in my recent book.  So I led with some quotations about the “Metaverse,” which is an attempt to literally create our own reality by means of technology.  From that, I went to other more contentious examples of constructivism in politics and morality.

To my surprise, I heard back from the editor that they really liked the piece!  They published it at the top of the fold (the most prominent position) on the op-ed page, illustrating it with a great photograph!

The headline made it sound like the piece was primarily about the Metaverse, but I think my larger point comes through.

The article is behind a paywall, but as the author I have the right to post it behind a paywall of my own.  Here is my original unedited version:

Our Need for Reality-Based Thinking

By Gene Edward Veith

In the metaverse, we will don virtual reality helmets and, from the comfort of our homes, go to school, work, shop, and socialize in a shared computer-generated animation. We will appear as avatars, which we can design to look any way we like, and in this virtual universe we will interact with other people’s avatars.

One of the masterminds of the metaverse, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of FaceBook who changed the name of his company to Meta, in line with his new technological priority, told a podcaster about his ambitions (my emphasis): “A lot of people think that the metaverse is about a place, but one definition of this is it’s about a time when basically immersive digital worlds become the primary way that we live our lives and spend our time.”

This is to say, he hopes to replace reality with virtual reality. Another internet mogul, Marc Andreesen, a member of the Meta board, is explicit about this. “Reality has had 5,000 years to get good, and is clearly still woefully lacking for most people,” he said. “We should build — and we are building — online worlds that make life and work and love wonderful for everyone, no matter what level of reality deprivation they find themselves in.”

The notion that “you create your own reality” is associated with pop psychologists. Now constructing one’s own reality seems technologically feasible. In fact, the belief that we can have “alternative realities” has a long pedigree.

The 20th century was the age of “modernism,” marked by the triumph of science and a trust in progress. Along with that came the sense that the scientific method is the only way to determine what is true. But scientific truths are nothing more than brute facts, devoid of any particular significance. Therefore, questions of meaning, values, ethics, religion, and culture—areas that occupy us more than scientific facts–must be purely subjective.

These began to be seen as “constructions.” Existentialist philosophers said that in a meaningless world, we must create our own meanings by an act not of the intellect but of the will. Political theorists went further, saying that meaning is created not just by the will but by the will to power. Not just by individuals but by social groups that create beliefs and institutions to impose their power on other groups. Claims of truth are really masks for racial, sexual, gender, and other kinds of oppression. Such “constructivism” became the hallmark of “postmodernism,” which has moved from academia into the whole culture and can be found on all sides.

Now we are seeing the consequences. Of course we are polarized politically. If culture is no more than groups trying to exercise power over each other, how could it be otherwise?
If we all inhabit different realities, no wonder we feel isolated from each other. If we do not recognize our common humanity, of course we will mistreat each other.

In the absence of objective, rational truth, we cannot reason with each other. Disagreements are interpreted as attempts to “impose your truth” on me. Since your beliefs stem from your will rather than your intellect, persuasion is impossible. You are my enemy, whom I must silence and punish.

And in a climate that considers explanations to be nothing more than constructed “narratives” and “explanatory paradigms,” conspiracy theories flourish.

In contrast, classical thought stresses a common, objective reality that is knowable by reason. And that people, for all of their differences, share a common humanity. Christianity goes further, teaching that human beings have a transcendent value in the love of God, who is the source of both a good creation and a moral law that even people in power are subject to. These strains would come together in liberal democracy, with its ideals of liberty, equality, and individual rights.

These cannot be sustained by postmodernist constructivism. Today, we can still draw on our moral heritage to decry oppression. But postmodern critical theory teaches that oppression is an intrinsic part of all societies. Ultimately, if your group oppresses me, all I can do is seize power so that I can impose my reality and oppress you.

To be sure, liberal democracies have much to answer for. But surely slavery, racism, the destruction of indigenous people, and other crimes grow out of a failure to recognize our common humanity and a failure to apply transcendent moral truths.

Despite our self-constructed realities, objective reality has a way of breaking in. COVID, wars, economic woes, and natural catastrophes are not just mental constructions. But we are ill-equipped to “get our minds around them.” Actual reality is multi-faceted and complex, as opposed to the cartoon-like metaverse and the simplistic reductionism of so much contemporary thought. We need a return to reality-based thinking.


Gene Edward Veith is a retired English professor and the author of numerous books on Christianity and culture, including Postmodern Times and Post-Christian.



Illustration:  The Metaverse Festival by Duncan Rawlinson via Flickr,  CC 2.0 

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