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The Invented Reality
How Do We Know What We Believe We Know?
Chapter: Psychotherapy

Paul Watzlawick
Published by W. W. Norton and Co/NY in 1984
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2007


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In the inside of the front of this book I pasted a Jim Davis Garfield comic strip from the Times-Picayune of Feb 8, 1985. It shows Garfield on a fence getting hit by a thrown shoe and the word SPLUT! marks the sound of the shoe's impact. Garfield turns, raises his index finger and objects to the cartoonist, "Hey, wait a minute! Shoes don't go 'SPLUT'!" In the next panel, a pie hits him in the face with a SPLUT! and he says, "That's more like it."

Here was Garfield helping to invent his reality or rather shape it to his expectations as the rest of us do unconsciously all the time. The process of creating our reality hardly ever appears in the cartoon panels that we call "life" unlike this Garfield cartoon. Garfield was breaking the frame of the cartoon to interact with the cartoonist, a process not unlike what we do in therapy with our therapists. We explain how we have invented our reality, and we expect them to take out the rough edges that we forgot that we had put inside our cartoon of life. Jim Davis was inadvertently making a "contribution to constructivism" as befits the subtitle of this book, which is full of such contributions carefully selected and edited by Paul Watzlawick.

Watzlawick writes in his Foreword of a "growing awareness that any so-called reality is in the most immediate and concrete sense the construction of those who believe they have discovered and investigated it."

[page 10] In other words, what is supposedly found is an invention whose inventor is unaware of his act of invention, who considers it as something that exists independently of him; the invention then becomes the basis of his world view and actions.

Does a ship's captain, who without charts sails his ship through a strait at night, add to the knowledge of the world? No, he does not. He does not even know that the strait existed because he experienced none of the constraints that the strait imposed. A captain whose ship foundered on the rocks that line the strait does add knowledge of the existence of that particular constraint to be avoided. Thus Ernst von Glasersfeld is led to say, "The only aspect of that 'real' world that actually enters into the realm of experience is its constraints. . ."

[page 24] Radical constructivism, thus, is radical because it breaks with convention and develops a theory of knowledge in which knowledge does not reflect an "objective" ontological reality, but exclusively an ordering and organization of a world constituted by our experience. The radical constructivist has relinquished "metaphysical realism" once and for all and finds himself in full agreement with Piaget, who says, "Intelligence organizes the world by organizing itself."

This seems silly, some of you may be thinking, can we not know something by seeing it? Consider that the thing you see exists in a past some milliseconds before the light signal reaches your eyes and is transmitted by your nervous system to your brain. Thus our knowing that we saw something is not immediate knowledge but is a construction of what happened after the fact. "It allways happens before you know it" is one of Matherne's Rules. In fact, Glasersfeld points out that "factum and fact both come from the Latin facere, to make!". Even facts are constructed from our experience, an experience that Thomas Kuhn warns us has been formed into a set of stable perceptual filters he called paradigms and these paradigms lead us to see what we expect to see. Thus when the Trobiander islanders saw Darwin's ship the Beagle sitting in the waters off their island, it was so much unlike their canoes, that they could not see a ship, and reported seeing only a big bird floating in the water. What one sees out there in the world today is constrained because one's trained to it. One might say because one is con-ned and trained to it. [See Goebbels advice to his propaganda managers below.]

Epistemology, that mellifluous mouthful of a word that means simply how we come to know something, "becomes the study of how intelligence operates, of the ways and means it employs to construct a relatively regular world out of the flow of its experience." (Page 32)

In Heinz von Foerster's chapter he proposes "to interpret cognitive processes as never-ending recursive processes of computation." (Page 48) The more recent application of this insight can be found in the Edelman's Theory of Neuronal Group Selection in which recursive loops of neuronal groups are postulated as the unit of selection in the construction of brain function. Such a view is reminiscent of Rupert Riedl's statement on page 73 that, "Evolutionary epistemology generally regards the evolution of organisms as a process of accumulating knowledge."

In Watzlawick's chapter, he attacks the "followed by, therefore caused by" fallacy in which it is assumed to be the case that the cause always precedes the effect so that if an event occurs after another event, the prior event is deemed to be the cause of the latter one. In a recursive loop, there is a blurring of cause and effect that makes it difficult to discuss either one in isolation. Much of psychotherapy is such a recursive loop where the therapist attacks a problem that didn't seem to exist before the therapist attacked it. The most memorable example in recent years has been the discovery that "recovered memories" of childhood sexual abuse were often fabricated. In addition one need only watch the TV show "Law & Order" to discover a plethora of psychiatric diagnoses that "unlike the diagnoses in all other medical specialties do not so much define as create a pathological condition." A pathological condition whose main purpose, it seems to me, is to get a criminal defined as a victim of the pathological condition created for that very purpose.

[page 66] Half a century ago the Viennese writer and critic Karl Kraus hinted at this possibility in his bitter aphorism according to which psychoanalysis is the illness whose cure it considers itself to be.

In Watzlawick's chapter on "Self-Fulfilling Prophecies" he gives the following definition of the process that is too often used and too little understood, up until now.

[page 95] A self-fulfilling prophecy is an assumption or prediction that, purely as a result of having been made, cause the expected or predicted event to occur and thus confirms its own "accuracy."

Thus "prophecy" is too strong a word for the process, but I also hold that "prediction" is also too strong a word, whereas "assumption" or "expectation" is closer to what happens. Our construction of our reality so often entails an assumption, an idea, expectation or supposition in our mind about how something is going to turn out, and it makes little difference whether the outcome is supposed to be good or bad. Everything Allways Turns Out The Way It's Supposed To (EAT-O-TWIST) is how I describe this process, and I will often say or think the short acronym EAT-O-TWIST to remind myself that, whenever something negative happens, it was my supposing somewhere back in time, usually unbeknownst to me, that led to this outcome. With that reminder to myself, I proceed to update my suppositions with more positive outcomes for the future from now on.

One application of EAT-O-TWIST is in the rule that the first time is always the hardest after all, the first time is not preceded by any confirmed supposition. Scientists trying to grow a never-before grown crystal will work in a laboratory for months or years to get the first one grown. Afterwards growing the same crystal is much easier. "So what everything's easier the second time." you may be thinking. And you would be right if it only applied to those same scientists who did the first crystal, but it is a well-known phenomenon that once a crystal has been grown for the first time, even scientists halfway around the world have an easier time of growing one like it, even if they do not change their method of growing the crystal. I first encountered this in Rupert Sheldrake's "A New Science of Life." One pernicious effect of EAT-O-TWIST is in the area of psychiatric diagnoses as Watzlawick points out:

[page 105] Suffice it to say that an essential part of the self-fulfilling effect of psychiatric diagnoses is based on our unshakable conviction that everything that has a name must therefore actually exist. The materializations and actualizations of psychiatric diagnoses probably originate largely from this conviction.

Propaganda has the nature of a self-fulfilling prophecy if we read the words of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's chief propagandist of World War II. As I read this I thought of the recent book "Media Bias" in which it is pointed out how the major broadcast media use the label "Conservative" to refer to those to the right of mainstream thought but omit the label of "Liberal" to those left of mainstream, as if by omission to saturate the American public with the idea that Liberal ideas and their proponents are in mainstream of public thought. Perhaps they have studied Goebbels carefully.

[page 112] This is the secret of propaganda: To totally saturate the person, whom the propaganda wants to lay hold of, with the ideas of the propaganda, without him even noticing that he is being saturated. Propaganda has of course a purpose, but this purpose must be disguised with such shrewdness and virtuosity that he who is supposed to be filled with this purpose never even knows what is happening.

One would imagine that the sane can easily be distinguished from the insane in an institutionalized setting, but the very nature of the setting is such that all behaviors exhibited by inmates are interpreted as resulting from a presupposed insanity. EAT-O-TWIST! A study was made by placing eight normal persons into such an institution and instructing them to behave normally. None of the inmates were discovered to be sane by any of the staff of the institution (although it was reported that few of the inmates were fooled). One of the normals who took copious notes during his internment was diagnosed as having a "writing compulsion." The complete results of the test case is reported by David L. Rosenhan in his chapter titled, "On Being Sane in Insane Places."

The Garfield cartoon mentioned at the start of this review was an example of the topic of the chapter by Rolf Breuer on "Self-Reflexivity in Literature", if I may stretch literature to include the comic strip, my first acquaintance with literature as a youth. As I read the following passage I was reminded of Woody Allen in a movie queue having a disagreement over what Marshall McLuhan said and having Marshall McLuhan step into the discussion to straighten them out on what he said.

[page 147] Above all, in comedy, and again and again since classical times, passages can be found in which the level of representation is interrupted by references to the spectators or to the fictive nature of the play.

One of the problems of modern society is the prevalence of suicide among our young people. In this passage from his Epilogue, Watzlawick tells us that both the suicide and the seeker are both looking for something, but the slight difference in their approach makes the difference between life and death.

[page 326] The counterpart of the suicide is the seeker; but the difference between them is slight. The suicide arrives at the conclusion that what he is seeking does not exist; the seeker concludes that he has not yet looked in the right place.

There may be only a slight difference between our normal of reality as something out there and the view of the constructivist that reality out there is constructed within us, but that slight difference can make an enormous difference in one's life.

"How do we know what we believe we know?" In the words of the song from the musical "South Pacific", we have to be carefully taught. Watzlawick returns the favor to those who taught him by teaching us in turn to discover the roots of the unconscious thinking processes called reality construction which are the basic building blocks of our lives in so many ways, up until now.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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