Postmodernism and Science

From the Friday Room discussion “Science and Politics”: 27 January 2012

Quote from an article “Decline and Fall” by Shawn Lawrence Otto in the New Scientist 29 October 2011 about the rise of anti-science and unreason in US politics.

“………… Postmodernism emerged, drawing on cultural anthropology and relativity to argue that there was no such thing as objective truth. Science was simply the cultural expression of western white men and had no greater claim to the truth than the ‘truths” of women and minorities. This fit well with the politics of civil rights and also conveniently placed the humanities back on top. In pop culture it became a secular religious movement that preached creating your own reality –the New Age.

Many positive things came out of postmodernism but the idea that there is no objective truth is just plain wrong. And yet a generation of Americans was taught this incorrect idea. As they became leaders in politics, industry and the media this thinking affected their regard for truth and science. Without objective truth, all arguments become rhetorical. We are either paralysed in endless debate or we must resort to brute authority. This is the abyss the US now faces.”

It seems to me that the ideas of postmodernism are being used, wrongly, to give comfort to climate deniers, which is potentially dangerous to all of us.

There seems to be a sort of double bind: You cannot deny that “postmodernism applies to everything” because that denial is itself “just one more view” to which postmodernism applies.

I suggest that useful aim to this discussion would be to attempt to clarify the limits of postmodernism in terms convincing to die-hard postmodernists.

My take on all this is as follows:

Data and Meaning

Data is something “Out there” which we share and is the same for everyone. For example, you and I (or a computer) can read the same piece of text. When I bring this text into my mind, I clothe it with “Meaning”, by which I mean all that comes up in my mind when I perceive and think about that particular piece of data.

In my mind the Meanings of different things are all linked together to make my personal Meanings Universe, a hugely complex thing. My Meanings Universe exists only in my mind and my interpretation this piece of data is uniquely dependent on the extent and nature of my Meanings Universe.

When you do the same, you do so in terms of your Meanings Universe, which is completely different to mine. Our full interpretations will never be the same.

Everybody’s Meaning universes is different and will differ more with culture, age, education and gender.

A Meaning is not the same as a definition; If, for example, the data includes the word “tree”, and you ask me what a tree is, I would try and define it or refer you to the definition in a dictionary. If you ask what tree means to me what comes into my mind is a collection of images, definitions and connections which, if I tried to describe, would come out as a disjointed stream of consciousness: memories of trees that I have climbed, fallen out of, picked fruit from, cut down, trees I have read about, tree as a metaphor etc. This would be much more than a definition but only the feeblest precis of what is actually in my mind.

If a number of people are asked about a particular poem they will give a variety of answers. Each response depends on how the words of the poem becomes part of each persons Meanings Universe.

However there are data topics, such as mathematics, where particular questions are expected to produce the same answer. Note that each individual bring  their own Meanings to their understanding, but these will either “work”, and give the right answer or not, in which case we say that the individual does not understand. We do not say that they have a valid alternative understanding.

So we have two distinct types of data: the poem is essentially about the unique Meanings in the poet’s mind; and maths, which is about statements that are not dependent on any particular persons Meanings. I suggest that “postmodernist type” thinking is only applicable to the former and “Rational Type” thinking is only applicable to the latter.

Furthermore I suggest that the inverse is true: “postmodernist type” thinking is not applicable to maths and if I am applying “Rational type” thinking to poetry, I have probably missed the point!

Science is a body of data accumulated from many individual observation of the world “out there” from which, as far as possible, content referring to any particular individual’s Meanings is excluded. I suggest that, like maths, “Rational Type” thinking is applicable and “postmodernist type” thinking is not.

With my science/engineering background this seems obvious, but how can we explain it in terms that postmodernists can understand?

John Greenwood

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4 Responses to Postmodernism and Science

  1. The problem with postmodernism is that generally they’re not interested in having postmodernism “assimilated” as it were into current thought – they believe that it is something so radical that it must sweep all before it and any attempt to try and reduce it is futile. Certainly this is the case in my own field of history, where Alun Munslow and Keith Jenkins have been flogging the postmodernist line for years, with increasingly diminishing returns,

    With regards to science, the denial of objectivity is quite a complex one. Most philosophers wpuld deny there is such thing as an Archimedian viewpoint from which to compare scientific theories; but that does not that one theory is as good as another. This is in essence the hallmark of post-modernism – drawing ridiculously apocalyptic conclusions from premises. Certainly in contemporary philosophy of science I think the search is on for something like an anti-representationalist theory of objectivity – just because we’ve jettisoned the “mirror of nature” metaphor doesn’t mean we have to throw in the towel.

    For a good laugh at postmodernisms expense, have a look at the Sokal hoax.

  2. Bob Tench says:

    There are other issues to be concerned about resulting from muddled post-modern thinking. Here is an abstract of an article entitled “Deconstructing the evidence-based discourse in health sciences: truth, power and fascism”

    Background – Drawing on the work of the late French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari, the objective of this paper is to demonstrate that the evidence-based movement in the health sciences is outrageously exclusionary and dangerously normative with regards to scientific knowledge. As such, we assert that the evidence-based movement in health sciences constitutes a good example of microfascism at play in the contemporary scientific arena.

    Objective – The philosophical work of Deleuze and Guattari proves to be useful in showing how health sciences are colonised (territorialised) by an all-encompassing scientific research paradigm – that of post-positivism – but also and foremost in showing the process by which a dominant ideology comes to exclude alternative forms of knowledge, therefore acting as a fascist structure.

    Conclusion – The Cochrane Group, among others, has created a hierarchy that has been endorsed by many academic institutions, and that serves to (re)produce the exclusion of certain forms of research. Because ‘regimes of truth’ such as the evidence-based movement currently enjoy a privileged status, scholars have not only a scientific duty, but also an ethical obligation to deconstruct these regimes of power.

    It is something of an irony that postmodern writers, Deleuze & Guattari amongst them, dress up their obscurantist writings with psuedo-mathematics & pseudo-science. When we ‘learn’ that, as feminist writer Luce Irigaray asserts, E = mc2 is a sexed equation because it privileges the speed of light over other speeds; or that problems of turbulent flow have remained unsolved because of the privileging of solid (masculine) over fluid (feminine) mechanics; then we know she has lost the plot. Apparently this categorization is related to the sex organs. This reminds me of another absurd assertion, this time Jaques Lacan, that the erectile organ is equivalent to the square root of –1. The kindest response, I think, is to invite the men (or women) in white coats to gently lead them away.

    ‘Intellectual Impostures’ (in America published as ‘Fashionable Nonsense’) by Alan Sokal & Jean Bricmont is an excellent critique of post-modernism. It includes the hoax that butchreedmark refers to where Sokal wrote a spoof article which was published by the American cultural-studies journal ‘Social Text’. You wonder if the article was peer reviewed and if so did the reviewers really think they understood it?

    Sokal & Bricmont also express a concern for the detrimental effect post-modernist thought has had on the political left.
    “Finally, for all those of us who identify with the political left, post-modernism has specific negative consequences. First of all, the extreme focus on language and the elitism linked to the use of a pretentious jargon contribute to enclosing intellectuals in sterile debates and to isolating them from social movements taking place outside their ivory tower. …… Second, the persistence of confused ideas and obscure discourses in some parts of the left tends to discredit the entire left; and the right does not pass up the opportunity to exploit this connection demagogically”

    Anyway for those of us who don’t understand post-modernism or think it ‘Fashionable Nonsense’ relief may be at hand if writer Edward Docx is to be believed; in a recent article in Prospect magazine he wrote Postmodernism is Dead

    Bob Tench

  3. Eric Kuhner says:

    Postmodernism and the postmodern dilemma have been misunderstood and misinterpreted by both science/scientists and by those who would submerge all meaning in a radical relativity by claiming anything means what they say it means or want it to mean. The best discourse I’ve seen on the postmodern double-bind and possible resolutions beyond the knee-jerk resort to reductionist rationalism comes from Richard Tarnas in “The Passion of the Western Mind”:
    None of the retorts to postmodernism negate Kant’s basic observation, paraphased by Tarnas, that, “The human being knows not the world-in-itself but rather the world-as-rendered-by-the-human-mind.” Reading refutations of postmodernism from a rationalist perspective is like reading Newtonian perspectives on quantum physics. Have you bothered to familiarize yourself with the subject at hand?
    I’m vitally interested in this subject because I’m convinced that neither postmodern relativism nor “scientific” rational reductionism (not to mention religious fundamentalism in all it’s variants) can provide us with a map to lead us out of the self-negating death spiral in which we find ourselves, manifested ecologically as well as psycologically, politically, socially, and spiritually. We need a ground on which to establish meaning and reestablish humility in the face of a universe which is ultimately mysterious and can neither be fully grasped or controlled, and the human imagination understood as integral to the cosmos and both as mutual reflections begins to provide such a platform.

  4. My perspective (coming from a background in science and technology) is that “The human being knows not the world-in-itself but rather the world-as-rendered-by-the-human-mind.” is not just right but that we need go further and add that the “world-as-rendered-by-the-human-mind.” is different in every mind (1). This is what I was trying to get at in my post above.
    Science is an enterprise which attempts to probe “the world-in-itself”. It takes the form of collection of “recipes that work”(2) and attempts to document these (ie create a “text”) with no dependence to any Meanings from any one mind.
    So, to my simple minded view, we can say that:

    • Dialogue, by which I mean all intercourse between humans, can never result in total agreement. only a degree of convergence.
    • We should never look to science for total agreement in dialogue. Although it represents our best grasp of “the world-in-itself”, dialogue can only be conducted with versions of “science-as-rendered-by-the-human-mind.”
    • Importantly, we should not look to science as a source of moral or other values. Although it can have a role in informing them(3)
    • Science will contain errors, but these errors can in principle be corrected.
    • In the world of dialogue, the degree of agreement can be significant. Thus, a large group of people may hold that a particular action is bad. This can change the view of other people and become the accepted view.
    • In contrast, what science tells us will be the same regardless of how many people believe otherwise. Any “accepted view” is irrelevant,
    • I think we must assume that there is only one world-out-there. So there can be only one science(4). However the extent of the world-out-there is unknown and probably much, much greater than has been probed by the science enterprise so far. Historical accident has determined which aspects have been probed.
    • Science, as a provider of value free conclusions, is unique and should not be regarded as “just another text”. However once these conclusions have been combined with Meanings and become part of a dialogue, this uniqueness is lost.

    Eric, I did try to make sense of the piece by Tarnas, I felt overwhelmed by what I see as other people’s Meanings, eg: “masculine”, “feminine”, “ego death”. It seemed to me to be an attempt to overcome the fundamental problem, that Meanings in one mind can never correspond exactly to those in another mind, by piling on yet more Meanings.
    You use the term “self-negating death spiral” which sounds like it has an important Meaning in your mind and resonates with Meanings in my mind. Maybe it includes the topic of a discussion we are planning for The Friday Room on February 15, which is “Limits To Growth”. Here there is a very real and urgent problem of explaining and persuading people from all backgrounds. Post-modernism thinking is, to my mind, being misapplied and likely to increase suffering. As you say “We need a ground on which to establish meaning…..”

    Footnote 1
    Recent studies of the process of perception and the development of machine recognition both indicate that identifying even the simplest object needs an extensive pre-existing knowledge of that object. Also that only the few aspects of that object that the person is prepared for, are perceived, while other seemingly major aspects are simply not seen.

    Footnote 2
    For example the “recipe” or experiment might be: take some beetroot juice and add vinegar: it turns red. If instead you add washing soda or ammonia: it turns blue.
    Anybody can try this and they will get the same result regardless of culture, religion or location.
    Further we can identify patterns. Vinegar can be replaced by any acid and washing soda by any alkali. Also we find that there are many purple coloured juices from vegetables do the same. Try red cabbage, red wine, blackcurrent juice and an extract of certain lichens called litmus.

    Footnote 3
    For example, science tells us that hydrogen cyanide is very toxic. It does not put any value on this property, positive or negative. Values come only from the mind of the user. Thus for a Hitler this is good and makes it a useful as a weapon and for exterminating people. For someone who wants to exploit other very useful properties of cyanide, this toxicity is a nuisance.

    Footnote 4
    There is no “alternative science” in which washing soda does not turn beetroot juice blue.

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