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The 18th Camel

Here is a story prominently exploited by Heinz von Foerster in order to illustrate an important aspect of constructivism (see Lynn Segal’s book “Das 18. Kamel oder Die Welt als Erfindung. Zum Konstruktivismus Heinz von Foersters”, Piper Verlag, 1988):

A Mullah was riding on his camel to Medina. On his way, he saw three young men with a small herd of camels. The men looked sad and confused. He approached them and asked what was wrong.
Our father passed away.”, said one of them.
May he rest in peace! I am sorry for your loss! Did he leave anything behind for you?“.
Yes, those seventeen camels! That’s all he possessed.”.
Well, then you can be happy! Why so gloomy?
His last will was that the oldest of us gets half of his camels, the second gets one third of them, and the youngest gets one ninth. We tried everything to distribute the camels, but it never works out!
Is that all that is burdening you, my friends? Well, then, just add my camel to the herd for a moment and see what happens!
Of the now 18 camels, the oldest brother got half, which is nine, and the second got one third, which is 6, and the youngest got one ninth, which is two. One camel was left, the one of the Mullah. He climbed it and continued his journey, waving with a smile at the happy brothers.

camel

Heinz von Foerster remarked: “Like that 18th camel, we need reality as a crutch that is thrown away when having clarity about everything else.”

How may we understand this? The three brothers in the story find themselves in a situation in which the task that is given to them is puzzling and seemingly impossible to accomplish. It makes no sense to them. This is because of a mismatch between the parameters of their task and the referential frame, its condition (one half, one third and one ninth of 17 can never yield whole numbers, which is important for structural integrity when the entity to distribute is camels!). Since the task itself (the late father’s last will) could not be changed, the only way to get out of the misery is to change the reference frame: 18 instead of 17 camels!

We find ourselves in similar situations day in and day out. Whatever happens to us, we have to make sense of it, otherwise our conscious cognition would leave us in despair and confusion. Think of the example I made in an earlier letter: Our visual perception is constantly completed according to our concepts of and (past) experiences with something, like the (2-dimensional) house front is immediately thought of as a complete (3-dimensional) house. We are able to find our way in this world because our trust that it works reliably in accordance with our expectation (the extrapolation from repeated past experience into the future) is seldom violated. The fundamental basis of self-knowledge is the separation of “me” and “the world” (or “all the rest”). What is “world” is knowledge that is acquired and constructed over the course of one’s lifetime (aligned with each other’s constructions by communication). Colloquially we refer to it as reality, meaning the referential frame for our performance (the “task”) in which everything ideally makes sense and works out well. Here we see why constructivists are never tired pointing out that it is important to get rid of (absolute) truth claims and instead to evaluate the validity of reality descriptions in terms of their viability (their success in application). The 18th camel was not among those that the brothers inherited from their father, we may say, so it is a kind of cheating. It is “not true”! But is that really important? The task was solved and everybody was happy, going on with their lives successfully. When you make decisions, even the most profane daily life choices (where and what to eat, what clothes to wear, to call your boyfriend or not, etc.), you do that in a matrix of factors that give you the illusion of being part of a perfectly consistent and fine-tuned “world” that functions according to particular laws and rules. You rely on that so much that most of the time you are not even aware of it. Be it scientific statements, value judgments, personal preference choices, behaviour, etc. – in your mind they must make sense so that you are willing to accept them (which you have to if you want to proceed into any direction in your life). The claim is: This sense-making has no roots in a fixed eternal unshakeable reality, but deep roots in your personal narrative, your world construction. I don’t deny that there is a “real” world of this or that kind, shape, constitution, whatever. We just have no access to it, so it must not be mixed up with our (conscious and unconscious) concept of it!

As von Foerster pointed out, we need the concept of reality as a crutch whenever we are unclear about something (which is quite often the case). Here, I also see the touching points with Buddha’s teachings again. Reality is an illusion, a matrix in which we are caught because there is no other choice, unless we acquire the skill to see things as they really are and get enlightened. I assume, that is a gradual process that we start in small steps and proceed according to our capacities. Being aware that “there is something” beyond our default-setting might be a good first step. May this story of the 18th camel plant a seed in your reflections!

 

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