On the Nature of Reality and How We Come to Know

My ontological and epistemological beliefs were shaped during my undergraduate studies in the applied philosophy discipline of bioethics. Bioethics involves the articulation of ethical tenets – autonomy, justice, beneficence, and non-maleficence – through various decision-making frameworks aligned to specific case contexts[1]. I hold autonomy paramount, from which the other three tenets derive. Thus, I consider the individual to be the primary moral good from which rights extend, with the individual embedded in a social web that includes intimate and broader collective relationships, for which moral good derives from both the collective and the individual.

Though my beliefs do not extend from or align with those of Saint Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae[2], I do share Aquinas’ perspective of dualism regarding free will versus determinism[3] (i.e. that both may simultaneously exist). My belief in dualism shapes my perspectives regarding reality and how we come to know.

I believe there is an external, objective world consisting of elements that include objects/matter (including humans) and time, but that realities regarding these are socially constructed. While I do not believe there is a single objective reality, I do believe there are basic, technical cause-and-effect aspects (laws) that govern elements and the relationships among them. I do not believe these aspects are unchangeable, nor do I believe these aspects determine reality. Regarding humans, I believe free will to be a complex aspect of elements and the relationships among elements, which may arise or occur independently from the basic cause-and-effect aspects.

I believe we come to know through experience (a physical sensation (Downes, 2017)[4] that serves as a basic cause. Through comparing and contrasting that experience with prior experiences (a basic effect), an interpretation of the experience (a basic reality) emerges. I believe our interpretations become re-interpreted and contextualized though comparing them with those of others through social interaction, from which emerges a relative collective reality[5]. This is a process of constructing a complex reality, which I believe embeds dualism whereby the reality we construct for ourselves (personal reality) may differ from the collective reality; that we are aware of this difference; and that we simultaneously know both realities (personal and collective). Sense-making, in terms of assessing validity of knowledge, is also constructed through this process of contextualizing individual and collective realities. Validity of knowledge, therefore, is not grounded on objective reality, but rather derives from an interplay between collective reality (which is external, but not objective) and personal reality (which is internal, subjective to the individual).

My epistemology reflects fundamental concepts of constructivist learning theory (Woolfolk et al., 2011). Consistent with this, my perspectives regarding education assume an autonomous individual positioned within multiple collective social contexts, and that individual-collective are mutually-constitutive. While the collective informs education and curriculum, for instance, the individual is the immediate unit of focus[6], mediated through learner-teacher interaction, and the individual’s learning feeds back to inform the collective. Multiple realities co-exist between individual and collective, which may align or differ, and which are constantly being (re-) negotiated.

Arising from the constructivist assumptions inherent in my epistemology is my philosophy of technological neutrality and uses determinism (Kanuka, 2008). I believe that technology (including artificial/machine intelligence) are neutral tools that extend our capacity (for interaction), and that how we use technology affects both technology and society (Kanuka, 2008; Pinch & Bijker, 1984).

Following from this, and from my beliefs regarding dualism, I hold a humanist philosophy of education (Kanuka, 2008). Kanuka (2008) describes humanism as encompassing individual growth, self-actualization, and autonomy as objectives for education, facilitated through group activities and experimentation, with the teacher positioned on the sideline or in the background. The role of technology is to facilitate learning activities in a way that provides flexibility and fosters learner autonomy (Kanuka, 2008). Adaptive learning, for which artificial/machine intelligence offers so much promise, is consistent with a humanist approach.


[1] I am primarily a Kantian ethicist, especially regarding decisions with implications for broader social policy.

[2] Indeed, I am an atheist.

[3] Saint Thomas Aquinas argued for dualism involving a Divine will and an (relatively) independent internal/personal will (Pasanau, 2002).

[4] Our initial experience being a basic physical sensation, such as a neuron firing in our brain, that differentiates us as an element separate from other elements (Downes, 2017).

[5] Collective, but not objective.

[6](and may contribute to shaping curriculum at the level of the individual)


Downes, S. (2017, November 14). Open, OERs, MOOCs [Webinar]. EDDE 801.

Kanuka, H. (2008). Understanding e-learning technologies-in-practice. In T. Anderson (Ed.), The theory and practice of online learning (91-118). Athabasca, Alberta: Athabasca University Press. Retrieved from http://www.aupress.ca/books/120146/ebook/04_Anderson_2008-Theory_and_Practice_of_Online_Learning.pdf

Pasnau, R. (2002). Thomas Aquinas on human nature: A philosophical study of summa theologiae, 1a 75-89. Cambridge University Press.

Pinch, T. J., & Bijker, W. E. (1984). The social construction of facts and artefacts: Or how the sociology of science and the sociology of technology might benefit each other. Social Studies of Science, 14(3), 399-441.

Woolfolk, A., Winne, P. H., & Perry, N. E. (2011). Education psychology (5th Canadian ed.). Newmarket, ON: Pearson Education Canada.


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