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Can we rehabilitate post-modernism, please?

I’m about to alienate even more knee-jerk skeptics (and good riddance!) by saying something incredibly daring: post-modernism isn’t so bad. Skeptics ought to embrace it. It’s sad that so few do: Mano Singham seems to be the rare one. I think maybe because he actually understands it.

Many scientists hate what they think of as postmodernism, mainly because of its denial of the possibility of an objective truth and its questioning of the concomitant idea that knowledge is somehow progressing. The idea that scientific knowledge is not necessarily advancing towards something that we can call ‘truth’ disturbs them. This radical break with past ideas that scientific progress was necessarily leading towards truth one of Thomas Kuhn’s key ideas in his highly influential monograph The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. But rather than engage with this important idea (and it is difficult to refute and has not been done, as far as I am aware), the term ‘postmodernism’ is often used as an epithet used by scientists against their critics, the way that ‘scientism’ is used as a weapon against science.

Most people don’t seem to know anything about post-modernism other than the Sokal hoax. This was a notorious paper submitted by a physics professor to the postmodern journal, Social Text, in which he cobbled together strings of buzzwords and nonsense into a jabberwocky of a paper…and it got accepted. Cue immediate jeers and contempt for the entirety of post-modernism.

There is no excuse for the Sokal paper — it was total garbage, and the editors should have been embarrassed. But somehow it became cause to dismiss the entire field. Why, it’s as if we decided that developmental biology was a total joke because we have journals with a fondness for publishing bad science about donuts.

But you know what post-modernism is, right? It’s a skeptical approach to literature, art, even science, that attempts to deconstruct the premises and presuppositions and cultural influences on a work. It’s an acknowledgment that nothing humans create appears out of a vacuum and that perfect objectivity is an illusion. Yeah, it’s got jargon, lots of jargon, that can be abused and that allows airheads to give the illusion of wisdom by babbling in cliches, but it’s also a useful tool that is used wisely by many academics.

For instance, there’s a lot of wisdom in what Michael Bérubé has written about the subject. Try reading this one paragraph and think. It will sound very familiar to those of us who have been actively opposing the pretense of absolute objective knowledge, and suggesting that maybe there are other unscientific phenomena that we ought to engage.

Sokal’s admirers have projected almost anything they desire–and they have desired many things. In early 1997, Sokal came to the University of Illinois, and quite graciously offered to share the stage with me so that we could have a debate about the relation of postmodern philosophy to politics. It was there that I first unveiled my counterargument, namely, that the world really is divvied up into “brute fact” and “social fact,” just as philosopher John Searle says it is, but the distinction between brute fact and social fact is itself a social fact, not a brute fact, which is why the history of science is so interesting. Moreover, there are many things–like Down syndrome, as my second son has taught me–that reside squarely at the intersection between brute fact and social fact, such that new social facts (like policies of inclusion and early intervention) can help determine the brute facts of people’s lives (like their health and well-being).

I had to emphasize that one sentence in the middle because it says so much about why the demarcation problem is non-trivial, but that last sentence is also essential — what we shall do with science and technology is as important as the science and technology themselves.

There have been many battles and many books published both for and against a postmodernist view of science, and I think the opposition is largely wrong. Post-modernism did not begin and end with Sokal. And while there is a painful amount of lefty nuttiness in post-modernist circles, there’s also a lot that’s worth learning.

A couple of physicists had clearly read Paul Gross and Norman Levitt’s then-recent book, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, a free-swinging polemic against science studies, feminism, Jeremy Rifkin, jargon, and much more, and they were mightily pissed off about this Andrew Ross fellow, who had written a science-studies book, Strange Weather, which he dedicated to “all the science teachers I never had. It could only have been written without them.”

Well, yes, I had to admit, Ross’s dedication was rather cheeky. But it was not in itself evidence that Ross did not know his subject matter. Besides, I added, when in Strange Weather Ross called for science “that will be publicly answerable and of some service to progressive interests,” and Gross and Levitt responded by writing, “ ‘Of some service to progressive interests’ seems reasonably clear, if frighteningly Stalinist in tone and root,” weren’t Gross and Levitt being kind of…nutty? Hysterical, perhaps? What was wrong with wanting medicine or engineering or environmental science to be publicly answerable and of some service to progressive interests? Why shouldn’t we try to build a world that affords greater public access to people with disabilities, for instance? And since conservatives had even then largely abandoned their early-twentieth-century commitment to conserve the Earth’s natural resources, wasn’t “environmental science” now a “progressive ” in and of itself? It’s not as if Ross was calling for a Liberation Astronomy. Would Ross’s sentence sound out of place in a bulletin issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists?

Science has to be answerable to public interest, and the goals of scientists (and atheists!) should include progressive values. We live to make a better world, right? So why should we not respect and appreciate a critical analysis of the social context of what we do?

I’m happy to accept Bérubé’s deal.

So these days, when I talk to my scientist friends, I offer them a deal. I say: I’ll admit that you were right about the potential for science studies to go horribly wrong and give fuel to deeply ignorant and/or reactionary people. And in return, you’ll admit that I was right about the culture wars, and right that the natural sciences would not be held harmless from the right-wing noise machine. And if you’ll go further, and acknowledge that some circumspect, well-informed critiques of actually existing science have merit (such as the criticism that the postwar medicalization of pregnancy and childbirth had some ill effects), I’ll go further too, and acknowledge that many humanists’ critiques of science and reason are neither circumspect nor well-informed. Then perhaps we can get down to the business of how to develop safe, sustainable energy and other social practices that will keep the planet habitable.

I’ll also extend the deal and say that we are obligated to pursue a humanist agenda ourselves — that simply accumulating deeper understanding of the universe without consideration of our place in it is ultimately destructive. I’m reminded of my late genetics mentor, George Streisinger, who considered ethical issues as important as the science, and spoke out in the 1980s about what were the important concerns.

I see the danger of global nuclear war as imminent. The use of poison warfare, the widespread use of chemicals that may be hazardous, the lack of any serious attempt to deal with population growth, the lack of any real concern about the just incredibly unequal distribution of wealth.

People have to be part of our equations.

Comments

  1. says

    How long until the first mocking accusation “Meyers is a post-modernist!” comes boiling out of the ignorant swamps of twitter or youtube, I wonder.

  2. Nick Gotts says

    Many scientists hate what they think of as postmodernism, mainly because of its denial of the possibility of an objective truth – Mano Singham

    Well, I do think it’s objectively true that 17 is a prime number, that the earth is billions of years old, and that human activities are affecting the climate. Don’t you?

  3. sonderval says

    I have heard the following quote as summing up post-modernism (paraphrasing from memory and translating from the German newspaper Die ZEIT):
    “Post-modernism says that explaing the world using the behaviour of Apollo is every bit as valid as using the behaviour of atoms.”
    Not all knowldege is relative (although the way it is looked at and it is phrased may well be). Science has a lot of cultural bias and ballast, but that does not imply (as at least some post-modernists seem to think) that all scientific results are just cultural decisions. Otherwise we could as well accept creationism.

  4. says

    Moreover, there are many things–like Down syndrome, as my second son has taught me–that reside squarely at the intersection between brute fact and social fact, such that new social facts (like policies of inclusion and early intervention) can help determine the brute facts of people’s lives (like their health and well-being).

    I appreciate illustrations such as this, it helps me to understand, in very clear terms. I’m one of those people who needs Post-modernism for Dummies.

  5. David Wilford says

    I’ve never thought there was a “ladder of progress” with respect to evolution myself. So biology got there before the post-modernists did.

  6. lostintime says

    Many scientists hate what they think of as postmodernism, mainly because of its denial of the possibility of an objective truth and its questioning of the concomitant idea that knowledge is somehow progressing. The idea that scientific knowledge is not necessarily advancing towards something that we can call ‘truth’ disturbs them

    Please correct me if I’ve misunderstood this, but this passage comes dangerously close to saying that there’s no such thing as objective truth. That may be true in many academic fields but it’s certainly not true in all of them. It’s objectively true that DNA is usually a double helix and birds fly because of aerodynamic principles.

  7. Nick Gotts says

    Moreover, if we deny the possibility of an objective truth, what’s the status of the claim that an objective truth is impossible?

  8. says

    I honestly know jack about Post-modernism in general, but it certainly never felt like the critiques of it were particularly well reasoned. It was clear there was more there than the backhanded dismissals were granting it. I still have no opinion on it. But I do know I’m loath to just knee-jerk accept that it’s bad because the same people who slam-talk humanities and philosophy as ‘useless’ called it useless. Sure. I’m betting you’re just the pure rational observer that’s never wrong, right?

  9. Anthony K says

    The real problem with post-modernism is that its opposition leads to modern atheist movements with men like Dawkins at the head and STEM dorks who fantasize about katanas and how best to con evil women into fucking them as their slavering fanbases.

    But I guess I’m just an empiricist at heart.

  10. Jacob Schmidt says

    Please correct me if I’ve misunderstood this, but this passage comes dangerously close to saying that there’s no such thing as objective truth.

    Really, it’s a denial that we can obtain objective truth; we’ll always be viewing things through cultural lenses and that will inhibit our understanding. It is somewhat close to creationist arguments. They argue that we all use the same facts, just with different interpretations.

    What’s good about post modernism isn’t that the founding principle is necessarily true. It’s that the field provides us with tools to deconstruct our theories and worldviews, catching any ingrained assumptions along the way.

    Then again, I might just know fuck all, since I don’t really have much experience with the field. This is just an impression I’ve gotten. Disregard me if you prefer.

  11. Jacob Schmidt says

    My above was to lostintime @7

    Nick Gotts

    Moreover, if we deny the possibility of an objective truth, what’s the status of the claim that an objective truth is impossible?

    I think the field makes a distinction between a priori and a posteriori knowledge. If it doesn’t, it should.

  12. Nick Gotts says

    Really, it’s a denial that we can obtain objective truth; we’ll always be viewing things through cultural lenses and that will inhibit our understanding. – Jacob Schmidt

    I don’t think that’s a great deal better. I really don’t think any cultural lenses are inhibiting my understanding of the objective truths that 17 is a prime number, the earth is billions of years old, and human activities are affecting the climate. I admit to being most certain of this in the first case, and least so in the last, but really, I’m pretty sure of it in all three. Aren’t you?

  13. says

    It should be noted that lots of the opposition to post-modernism is grounded in racism and hegemony.
    When talking about arts, literature and yes, history, post-modernism is a way for the marginalized to write back*. The colonial history of India was written by the British and treated as Truth™. It’s a struggle by the dominant culture to keep control of the narratives.

    *That’s a technical term, btw

  14. lostintime says

    Jacob Schmidt #12

    Really, it’s a denial that we can obtain objective truth; we’ll always be viewing things through cultural lenses and that will inhibit our understanding.

    That’s more or less what I thought it meant, and I think that’s perfectly true in PPE and humanities subjects, and I’m sure a great deal of science as well. But that doesn’t mean we’re incapable of obtaining ‘obvjective truth’, as if it’s some rarefied abstraction that we could never possibly obtain. We’ve had some great examples in the thread already, but it’s true that the earth is billions of years old and we are related to blobfish. We can and have obtained objective truth. The value of postmodernism I guess is where we can’t make such claims.

  15. Anthony K says

    Then again, I might just know fuck all, since I don’t really have much experience with the field. This is just an impression I’ve gotten. Disregard me if you prefer.

    I’m sure I have no more expertise with the field than you do Jacob (though I do have a social science background), but that’s pretty much my understanding as well.

    Postmodernism arose as a criticism of modernism, which is, in essence, exactly what some of the less thinky self-described skeptics are, the kind who describe themselves on Twitter with bon mots like Everything I believe is evidence based. No exceptions.

  16. grim says

    Hey PZ,
    Former student here. I think that well done considerations of post-modernism (particularly in regards to science) aren’t that hard to find. I would recommend Drawing out Leviathan:
    http://www.amazon.com/Drawing-Out-Leviathan-Dinosaurs-Science/dp/0253339375

    Do we perceive the world through our own cultural baggage and assumptions? of course. But that does not mean that we are incapable of gaining an understanding of our world. Doing so is imperative to solve any of the social, political and environmental problems that you talk about.

  17. Nick Gotts says

    I think the field makes a distinction between a priori and a posteriori knowledge. – Jacob Schmidt@13

    But (if it does) which is the claim that an objective truth is impossible supposed to be, and what’s the status of the claim that it is whichever it’s supposed to be? And what’s the status of the distinction between a priori and a posteriori knowledge? How does that get to be immune to postmodernist relativism?

    (Incidentally, someone has pointed out, correctly, on Mano Singham’s thread, that Kuhn denied being a relativist and asserted his belief that science does progress.)

  18. Adela Doiron says

    I still wonder how post modernism gives us such ugly buildings and pretentious blowhards in the arts if it’s supposed to be a skeptical philosophy.

  19. ludicrous says

    When post-modernism achieves a name of it’s own and not merely post-something, let me know. I am writing this post-yesterday, post-lunch even and oh yes, post-catholic I look at everything post-catholic these days, and post-misogynistic too, not to mention post-hero worship and post virginity. Coming up on post-sentience, can hardly wait.

    Seriously, a nice name would help to measure how far we are talking past each other.

  20. Anthony K says

    We’ve had some great examples in the thread already, but it’s true that the earth is billions of years old and we are related to blobfish.

    Those aren’t really such great examples. I’m no mathematician, so I’ll leave others to talk about primes, but “billions of years” isn’t an objective truth in the sense that anyone human actually understands what billions of years actually means. And I’ll leave it to the linguistic anthropologists to talk about what words like ‘related’ mean.

  21. Anthony K says

    When post-modernism achieves a name of it’s own and not merely post-something, let me know. I am writing this post-yesterday, post-lunch even and oh yes, post-catholic I look at everything post-catholic these days, and post-misogynistic too, not to mention post-hero worship and post virginity. Coming up on post-sentience, can hardly wait.

    I’ll do the funny around here. I do it better than you, and you’re just muddying concepts to suit your biases.

  22. Nick Gotts says

    When talking about arts, literature and yes, history, post-modernism is a way for the marginalized to write back*. – Giliell@15

    But if we go the whole post-modernist hog and deny the possibility of objective truth, we are committed to saying the viewpoint of the oppressor is just as valid as that of the oppressed.

  23. Nick Gotts says

    but “billions of years” isn’t an objective truth in the sense that anyone human actually understands what billions of years actually means. – Anthony K.@23

    That’s just crap. It’s really not far from “Were you there?”.

  24. Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

    I don’t have that much experience with post-modernism, but I suspect a detailed comparison with evolutionary psychology might be illuminating.

  25. Nick Gotts says

    Anthony K.@23,

    It’s an objective truth in the actual sense of those words, viz, that the earth really is billions of years old.

  26. David Wilford says

    Here’s an example of how an objective fact is not quite what it seems, from Richard Lewontin:

    If hybrids really are a superior method for agricultural production, then their commercial usefulness to the seed company is a side issue. The question is whether other methods of plant breeding might have worked as well or better without providing property-rights protection for the seed companies. The answer to that question depends on some issues in basic genetics that were undecided in the early history of hybrid corn, and until 30 years ago [as of 1992-DW], one might have argued that the basic biology of corn production is such that only hybrids would provide the added yield. However, we have known the truth of the matter for the last 30 years. The fundamental experiments have been done and no plant breeder disagrees with them. the nature of the genes responsible for influencing corn yield is such that the alternative method of simple direct selection of high-yielding plants in each generation and the propagation of seed from those selected plants would work. By the method of selection, plant breeders could, in fact, produce varieties of corn that yield quite as much as modern hybrids. The problem is that no commercial plant breeder will undertake such investigation and development because there is no money in it.

    Keep this in mind with respect to the genetic alteration of seed, and whether or not alternatives might exist outside the Monsanto box.

  27. Jacob Schmidt says

    Nick Gotts

    I admit to being most certain of this in the first case, and least so in the last, but really, I’m pretty sure of it in all three. Aren’t you?

    I’m not saying the founding principle is true. I’m saying it’s useful, since that sort of mindset let’s us examine the way we think.

    I think of it like the assumption of ideality; totally fucking false, but true enough under limited circumstances for it to be useful.

    But (if it does) which is the claim that an objective truth is impossible supposed to be, and what’s the status of the claim that it is whichever it’s supposed to be?[1] And what’s the status of the distinction between a priori and a posteriori knowledge? How does that get to be immune to postmodernist relativism?[2]

    1) I’ve never seen any logical proof for such a principle, so it would fall under a posteriori knowledge.

    2) A priori; they’re distinct sets not subject to experience.

  28. says

    I don’t really know what postmodernism is, but I suspect it refers to multiple things in many different fields, and is too broad a category to either condemn or praise.

  29. lostintime says

    Anthony K #22

    I’m no mathematician, so I’ll leave others to talk about primes, but “billions of years” isn’t an objective truth in the sense that anyone human actually understands what billions of years actually means

    Really, you’re questioning the age of the earth? It’s just as mathematical as primes and I’d like it if you could expand on that. That sounds like hyperskepicism to me which in any other context would be trashed.

  30. Jacob Schmidt says

    But if we go the whole post-modernist hog and deny the possibility of objective truth, we are committed to saying the viewpoint of the oppressor is just as valid as that of the oppressed.

    Well, no. Where do you see that?

    In any case, it’s still far better than thinking the oppressors viewpoint is more valid.

  31. Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

    Well, I do think it’s objectively true that 17 is a prime number, that the earth is billions of years old, and that human activities are affecting the climate. Don’t you?

    I think the issue is big-t Truth.

  32. Anthony K says

    That’s just crap. It’s really not far from “Were you there?”

    If you don’t understand a thing, ask.

    How many years have you been alive, Nick? Can you just multiply your lifetime until you arrive at billions and understand that? Do we really need to discuss how ‘deep time’ is a thing that no living human actually comprehends in the way that they understand what ‘three summers ago’ means?

  33. Bicarbonate says

    Well, I think postmodernism is useful (and that’s the question, useful, not useful) in showing how objects of study are constructed, how people come to determine that they’ll study this or that, and define and limit the scope of object of study.

    I agree with Schmidt at #12

    It’s that the field provides us with tools to deconstruct our theories and worldviews, catching any ingrained assumptions along the way.

    In other words, attempting to get the folk theory out of your hypothesis.

    Also, I don’t think there’s much use in talking about true/false as the only alternatives but of kinds of truth and uses of truth and what those imply for action.

  34. Brian says

    “Can we rehabilitate post-modernism?” Of course we can. Just like post-modernism was an attempt to rehabilitate modernism, the next stage of evolution will eventually replace post-modernism.

    And just like evolution, it’s anyone’s guess whether it will ultimately prove to be better than what it replaced, worse than what it replaced, a lateral change that isn’t clearly better or worse, a change that is little more than rearranging deck chairs, or any combination of the above.

    What I would like to see in the next stage is a radical commitment to clear language. (Yes, it’s almost always difficult to discuss such things in simple terms, and trying to do so can easily lead to confusion. But there needs to be an acknowledgement that complicated sentences all too often don’t embody complicated ideas.)

  35. says

    Anthony K:

    Do we really need to discuss how ‘deep time’ is a thing that no living human actually comprehends in the way that they understand what ‘three summers ago’ means?

    Billions of years is like billions of dollars, not easy to grok at all.

  36. maudell says

    In my studies, postmodernism/critical theory is usually used as a tool. It seems to me to be untenable as a ‘complete theory of everything’ as the strawman does, but it is a very useful skeptical tool. I deal with data analysis, and remembering that you must start with assumptions is the crux of the process. It is quite easy to be wrong with a perfectly tight logical model. You have to check those assumptions, and they are generally unfalsifiable.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that there is a false dichotomy between objective and relative reality. Raising problems with the assumption of objective, absolute and accessible truth does not mean “everything has the exact same truth value”. I’m definitely an empiricist, and postmodern ideas are helping me being a better researcher, in my opinion. We have problems establishing models based on categories, language and interpretation. Empiricism alone, particularly of the positivist type, seldom covers these problems (though social scientists have been quite good at changing this in the past 20 years). We need to take relevant criticism seriously in quantitative research.

    @Nick Grotts

    Math has proofs (therefore 17 is objectively a prime number under the values we ascribe to 17). Science does not, but it uses math in its models. Under these models, a few assumptions are required, that is where problems lie. This is the main hurdle when trying to understand complex social phenomena. I think ‘hard science’ (not dealing with interactions with other beings) is different in this sense, the same problem arises in the application of science in social settings. While I’m not a post-modernist, it seems to me that you are mistaken by its meaning.

  37. Nick Gotts says

    Jacob Schmidt@29

    I’m not saying the founding principle is true. I’m saying it’s useful, since that sort of mindset let’s us examine the way we think.

    I think it just gets in the way of a proper appreciation of the fact that all knowledge is a cultural product, and that we all have biases. It’s quite possible to appreciate those points without hogwash like the “founding principle”, which is an easy target for the True Skeptics.

    1) I’ve never seen any logical proof for such a principle, so it would fall under a posteriori knowledge.

    2) A priori; they’re distinct sets not subject to experience.

    1) So, it’s not objectively true.
    2) I think Quine, for one would disagree with you: he certainly considers the related analytic/synthetic distinction to be a squishy one.

  38. doublereed says

    I have like zero understanding of what is going on in this conversation.

    We have our own perception of the world. And we generally understand ideas and knowledge in a Bayesian way, in that we are not entirely certain, we use lots of prior information (even if it isn’t appropriate), we can convinced in various ways, and are subject to various biases. Sometimes certain ideas catch on in societies and become memes or something.

    But none of that has anything to do with whether something is true or false. I’m completely confused by such ideas. Humans can just be incorrect about things. Is this confusing? Where does postmodernism fit into any of this? I don’t get it.

  39. David Marjanović says

    I strongly recommend this post with its 17 comments.

    When post-modernism achieves a name of it’s own and not merely post-something, let me know.

    Meh. I’m happy to be a postpositivist. I’m with comment 23.

  40. jpone says

    One of the grand pitfalls of trying to understand of defend post-modernism is that it’s so very, very easy to make into a caricature. Because, in many cases, that caricature contains accepted academic examples. Wade around in the world of Hayden White or Jacques Derrida for a bit and you’ll emerge wanting to stab something.

    But when it comes to history, or in this case, the history of science, post-modernism can be a very useful tool in analyzing the process of how we acquire knowledge, if less so about the results. When considering the results (which may or may not represent some objective truth) post-modernism asks us to think critically about the biases, perceptions and culture of those producing the results.

  41. David Wilford says

    I still wonder how post modernism gives us such ugly buildings and pretentious blowhards in the arts if it’s supposed to be a skeptical philosophy.

    Think of it this way. Architect Louis Sullivan’s famous quote “Form follows function” was a mantra in architecture for decades and perhaps found it’s ultimate expression in Bauhaus modernism. (The down side of this would be the Soviet Union’s architectural brutalism.) But form itself does have a function, namely beauty, that isn’t just about function. Of course beauty is in the eye of the beholder and while I like the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota, others hate it. But it’s more than just a pole barn at least.

  42. Stephen says

    No thanks, my whole university experience was dealing with postmodernism. I’m glad it’s dying, we can finally have a humanities that is grounded in reality. This of course includes the intersection between brute and social fact but these ideas predate postmodernism.

  43. says

    David Wilford, #28: Yes. Most of the objections to GMO foods, for instance, are pure nonsense. But it’s simply a fact that most of the genetic modifications being made by agribusiness are not to promote productivity, but to protect the brand and lock in farmers to specific strains. Agribusiness hates the idea of seed stock, that farmers could set aside some of their production to propagate the next season’s harvest; much better if they have to buy it every year!

  44. Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

    What I would like to see in the next stage is a radical commitment to clear language.

    Or at least reigning in the orgiastic excess of deliberate obfuscation.

  45. scottrobson says

    The problem I have had with post-modernism or post-modernists I have interacted with is an unapologetic lack of self-hyper-skepticism — please forgive me for the ugly word construction. Its all fine and well to critique science as only a “narrative” told by old white men, but this critique is not unique to science! I can easily critique PoMo as the product of overeducated liberals with nothing better to do than be upset that jobs are waiting for the engineers at the end of their degrees but not the humanities students; it is otherwise vacuous.

    I claim that this assessment is more accurate than the “science is just old white men making up stuff” assessment and I believe I can defend that, with studies of who are actual scientists versus who are actual advocates of PoMo philosophy. Maybe their is more to PoMo, but it definitely has an image problem. To use my best Australianisms… its fully of wankery and the name “Post Modernism” can’t be rehabilitated. I think there are other areas of social criticism that can absorb the elements of the PoMo society that isn’t so fully into mental masturbation.

  46. F [is for failure to emerge] says

    When post-modernism achieves a name of it’s own and not merely post-something

    You’re going to run into lots of problems. Like atheism. Or dielectric. And antivenom. Or responding to something someone else said, rather than producing fully-formed thoughts independent of anything while trying to stick to a subject in an already extant conversation.

  47. Nick Gotts says

    Well, no. Where do you see that? – Jacob Schmidt@32

    Well if there’s no objective truth, no view is more valid than any other.

    If you don’t understand a thing, ask. – Anthony K.@34

    Do you not comprehend that it’s possible for someone to understand you perfectly well, and still consider that what you’re saying is crap? Because I did, of course, understand exactly what you meant, and it is crap: the fact that we don’t have an intuitive grasp of “billions of years” has no bearing whatsoever on whether “the earth is billions of years old” is objectively true.

  48. says

    Anthony K:

    It’s easy to say, of course, but that’s not the same thing.

    No, it isn’t the same thing. Billions of anything, for me, is an abstract. I get it, in the greater scope of things, as I think most people do, however, that’s accepting billions of whatever, not truly understanding it.

  49. Jacob Schmidt says

    Nick Gotts

    I think it just gets in the way of a proper appreciation of the fact that all knowledge is a cultural product, and that we all have biases.[1] It’s quite possible to appreciate those points without hogwash like the “founding principle”[2], which is an easy target for the True Skeptics.[3]

    1) I see the other way. It’s a great way of appreciating it, since it acknowledges the pit falls of culturally produced knowledge.

    2) I’m not sure what you/re trying to deride here; any field will be based on a few key ideas, and expand from there.

    3) I really couldn’t give a shit about True Skeptics. Idiots who can’t think for themselves and who refuse to distinguish between assuming a given principle is absolutely true and using a given principle provisionally to weed out pour assumptions can fuck right off.

    I think Quine, for one would disagree with you: he certainly considers the related analytic/synthetic distinction to be a squishy one.

    I’d have to see the argument. From where I’m sitting, the distinction seems obvious.

  50. doublereed says

    @45 Anthony

    I’d say it’s actually impossible for all but potentially a few individuals. It’s easy to say, of course, but that’s not the same thing.

    This is actually one of my main arguments against religion. Nobody really understands the evil of the Holocaust. It’s simply impossible by the limits of human cognition. Not even Hitler could comprehend it. God, however, would supposedly be able to grasp such a thing and yet would still do nothing. It’s a pretty frightening part of the Problem of Evil.

  51. maudell says

    @Gilliel 15

    Good point. Postmodernism is crucial in history. People who assume objectivity of historical narrative (by which I mean objectivity of which events are relevant, contextual and causal to historical change, not whether events happened or not) often assume postmodernism is ‘making history up’ (feminist theories of history are a good example of this dismissal).

  52. Jacob Schmidt says

    Nock Gotts

    Well if there’s no objective truth, no view is more valid than any other.

    Eh? The inability to obtain objective truth is due to bad cultural biases; those with less biases probably have a better understanding.

  53. stevesommers says

    The primary issue I see with post-modernism is that, right or wrong, it provides purchase for pseudo-science such as Intelligent Design, Creationism, homeopathy, etc. Saying there’s a lot of good stuff in post-modernism means that one must be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. Unfortunately, far too many people are incapable of doing so.

  54. Nick Gotts says

    maudell@39

    @Nick Grotts

    It is objectively true that my name is not “Grotts” ;-)

    Math has proofs (therefore 17 is objectively a prime number under the values we ascribe to 17). Science does not,/blockquote>

    Actually, it does; the sense of “proof” used in mathematics is not the only valid sense. I’m not sure if this is what you meant, but vulgar Popperians often trot out the notion that science only disproves, but of course if you disprove A, you inevitably prove ~A.

    but it uses math in its models. Under these models, a few assumptions are required, that is where problems lie. This is the main hurdle when trying to understand complex social phenomena. I think ‘hard science’ (not dealing with interactions with other beings) is different in this sense, the same problem arises in the application of science in social settings. While I’m not a post-modernist, it seems to me that you are mistaken by its meaning.

    Could you please try and restate that? I really can’t disentangle it. What are you saying about different kinds of science, and exactly what do you think I’m mistaken about?

  55. Rob Grigjanis says

    I’d love to see Mano, Michael Bérubé or Chris Clarke show up and defend the apparently egregious treatment of prime numbers, radiometric dating, and climate science by their fellow travelers. Decency demands it!

  56. Nick Gotts says

    Eh? The inability to obtain objective truth is due to bad cultural biases – Jacob Schmidt@58

    No, the claim in the quote from Singham is that there is no objective truth, not that it’s hard, or even impossible, to obtain. If there is no objective truth, it’s not objectively true that anyone is biased.

    (BTW, who’s this “Nock Gotts”? Any relation to Nick Grotts?)

  57. David Wilford says

    Billions of years is like billions of dollars, not easy to grok at all.

    A billion is a thousand millions. A million is a thousand thousands. A thousand is about what a crappy used car costs. Hope that helps.

    This is a very nice visualization of vast numbers:

  58. Nick Gotts says

    Jacon Schmidt@54,

    Well, we differ: I think it’s important to be clear about what you’re claiming and what you’re not; you apparently disagree.

  59. lostintime says

    Anthony K #34

    Do we really need to discuss how ‘deep time’ is a thing that no living human actually comprehends in the way that they understand what ‘three summers ago’ means?

    I think we’re talking past each other, but comprehension is irrelevant to whether or not something is true. The earth is billions of years old and we can prove it. I think some of the tension around postmodernism comes about because we find it difficult to accept the idea that some things are true whether we have an intuitive feel for them or not.

  60. Jacob Schmidt says

    Nick Gotts

    No, the claim in the quote from Singham is that there is no objective truth, not that it’s hard, or even impossible, to obtain.

    So, since the assumptions in ideal gas laws are false, assuming that gases are made of rainbows and butterflies is just as valid?

  61. Nick Gotts says

    The primary issue I see with post-modernism is that, right or wrong, it provides purchase for pseudo-science such as Intelligent Design, Creationism, homeopathy, etc. – stevesommers@59

    QFT.

  62. says

    Rob Grigjanis:

    I’d love to see Mano, Michael Bérubé or Chris Clarke show up and defend the apparently egregious treatment of prime numbers, radiometric dating, and climate science by their fellow travelers. Decency demands it!

    I do believe that would constitute cruelty to people.

  63. dgel says

    Personally, I’m not sure I can accommodate post-modernism. Setting aside the over-the-top obscurant language, I don’t see much in it that other branches of philosophy of science and science itself cannot answer. The arguments put forth here seem mostly sophistry to me as well.

    What was wrong with wanting medicine or engineering or environmental science to be publicly answerable and of some service to progressive interests? Why shouldn’t we try to build a world that affords greater public access to people with disabilities, for instance? And since conservatives had even then largely abandoned their early-twentieth-century commitment to conserve the Earth’s natural resources, wasn’t “environmental science” now a “progressive ” in and of itself?

    Science in itself doesn’t determine what research to fund and how to apply it. I don’t see why post-modernism in particular should have something interesting to say about it though.

    From the comments:
    Deep time is a great example where objective fact and the human limits of comprehension (and all the associated cultural and biological filters that come into play) meet.

    Just because we don’t have an experiential frame to put large time-scales in personal context, doesn’t mean that claims about the age of the earth are somehow not true.

  64. Jacob Schmidt says

    Nick Gotts

    Well, we differ: I think it’s important to be clear about what you’re claiming and what you’re not; you apparently disagree.

    You’re gonna have to explain your reasoning behind this one. This just looks like one giant non sequitur to me.

    stevesommers

    The primary issue I see with post-modernism is that, right or wrong, it provides purchase for pseudo-science such as Intelligent Design, Creationism, homeopathy, etc.

    Genetics can also be abused to support eugenics.

  65. Nick Gotts says

    So, since the assumptions in ideal gas laws are false, assuming that gases are made of rainbows and butterflies is just as valid? – Jacob Schmidt

    No. The ideal gas laws are not, unlike the claim that there is no objective truth, self-refuting. Moreover, they are a useful approximation to the truth, while “there is no objective truth” is nowhere near the truth, and thus is not useful.

  66. w00dview says

    But if we go the whole post-modernist hog and deny the possibility of objective truth, we are committed to saying the viewpoint of the oppressor is just as valid as that of the oppressed.

    This is definitely one of the things that makes me wary of post-modernism. Anyone can talk compete nonsense on a subject and then claim it is just their interpretation of the facts- creationists use this all the time. It also props up the false balance baloney used by the media instead of just reporting a story with as much facts as possible so the viewer/reader is informed. That is why I dislike post-modernism, it can set the seeds for anti science assholes or reactionaries to claim their lies and bullshit propaganda are just as valid as peer reviewed evidence or the experiences of oppressed groups.

    Not to mention, I think there is something genuinely elitist about post-modernism. Of course, science has it’s own set of jargon to describe phenomena but scientists themselves will attempt to describe their research to the public in layman’s terms if possible. I look at the word salad that can be produced in some post modernist work and all I see is a bunch of gibberish. And the reason I find it elitist is that post modernists don’t WANT you to understand the word salad. If you get it, you get it and if you don’t you don’t. Like a lot of self proclaimed sceptics the writers of such drivel seems to be far happier with being superior to the plebs and patting themselves on the back for being so gosh darn clever.

    Mind you, I admit to not knowing much about post-modernism and could be completely full of shit for feeling this way about it. But what I have seen so far has not impressed me.

  67. Anthony K says

    Because I did, of course, understand exactly what you meant, and it is crap: the fact that we don’t have an intuitive grasp of “billions of years” has no bearing whatsoever on whether “the earth is billions of years old” is objectively true.

    It sure as hell has a bearing on how you (like, an actual person) actually ‘know’ an objective truth that you can’t grasp, and how you (like, an actual person) create narratives to approximate that knowledge.

    Why, look, David Wilford has helpfully posted one of those narratives.

  68. Nick Gotts says

    You’re gonna have to explain your reasoning behind this one. – Jacob Schmidt@76

    *sigh*
    If you claim that there is no objective truth, but you don’t actually mean it, you’re being unclear about what you’re claiming, and quite unnecessarily so, since there are perfectly clear ways of saying what you do mean.

  69. Jacob Schmidt says

    dgel

    Setting aside the over-the-top obscurant language…

    I was helping my partner read through her environmental chemistry text the other day. There are dozens of terms that layman wouldn’t be able to understand well within the introductory chapter. I don’t think “the field is esoteric” is at all good criticism.

    Science in itself doesn’t determine what research to fund and how to apply it. I don’t see why post-modernism in particular should have something interesting to say about it though.

    There are a lot of cultural assumptions involved in deciding what to fund, including some that involve the gender of the applicant. Post modernism seeks to undermine said assumptions.

  70. Nick Gotts says

    Anthony K@79,

    So what? It has no bearing whatsoever on whether it is objectively true. It’s this conflation between truth and knowledge that’s a large part of what I’m objecting to.

  71. Anthony K says

    Just because we don’t have an experiential frame to put large time-scales in personal context, doesn’t mean that claims about the age of the earth are somehow not true.

    Not actually saying that.

  72. says

    David Wilford #28:

    Keep this in mind with respect to the genetic alteration of seed, and whether or not alternatives might exist outside the Monsanto box.

    It’s a brute fact (to use Bérubé’s distinction) that yes, actually, they do. Avicenna makes a good job of explaining one such example. But interestingly, it’s a social fact that “Monsanto” is the first thing coming to a lot of people’s mind when they hear about that kind of research.

    jpone #44:

    One of the grand pitfalls of trying to understand of defend post-modernism is that it’s so very, very easy to make into a caricature. Because, in many cases, that caricature contains accepted academic examples.

    This story related by Ophelia Benson about unchecked cultural relativism in academia comes to mind.

  73. stevesommers says

    stevesommers

    The primary issue I see with post-modernism is that, right or wrong, it provides purchase for pseudo-science such as Intelligent Design, Creationism, homeopathy, etc.

    Genetics can also be abused to support eugenics.

    There is nothing scientifically wrong with eugenics. It properly uses the theory of heritability. The issue with eugenics is moral not scientific.

  74. Anthony K says

    So what? It has no bearing whatsoever on whether it is objectively true.

    No, but it does on whether or not we can know a thing that’s ‘objectively true’.

    It’s this conflation between truth and knowledge that’s a large part of what I’m objecting to.

    I agree. But that conflation is actually a problem with modernism.

  75. Russell Glasser says

    A short list of films that have postmodern themes, and totally kick ass:

    The Matrix
    Total Recall
    Inception
    Memento
    12 Monkeys
    Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

    In general, if you see a movie that screws with your ideas about how reality works — thank a postmodernist.

  76. says

    @Nick Gotts way back upthread (sorry if the conversation has progressed beyond it; I don’t have time at the moment to read the whole thread)

    Well, I do think it’s objectively true that 17 is a prime number, that the earth is billions of years old, and that human activities are affecting the climate. Don’t you?

    Perhaps those are “objective truths” but what post-modernism tells us is that we necessarily have subjective perceptions through which we filter them: e.g. why do we have “prime number” as a concept? how can we conceive of billions of years when our biology is fixed to perceive years in terms of decades? why do we care about how old the earth is? if all human activities affect the climate, what difference is there between effect and effect? Is our subjectivity clouding our perception of what we think are the facts? Is it blinding us to other facts that are just as real but ignored because of what we are choosing to look at?

    The point is, we’re always subjects no matter what. We turn our observational eye on this or that phenomenon, but we don’t always look at ourselves looking at the phenomena. That’s what postmodernism is about. Meta analysis.

  77. Nick Gotts says

    Anthony K.@79,
    Notice that David Wilford’s useful example@28 (I assume that’s the one you meant) includes the sentence:

    However, we have known the truth of the matter for the last 30 years.

    Not only truth, but actual knowledge of the truth, forsooth! So despite all the pomo bilge, we really do need do deploy these concepts in order to be usefully critical of science as it has been practiced in the service of Big Farma.

  78. Anthony K says

    The primary issue I see with post-modernism is that, right or wrong, it provides purchase for pseudo-science such as Intelligent Design, Creationism, homeopathy, etc.

    And the primary issue I see with modernism (and it’s ‘scientism’ counterpart) is that, right or wrong, it provides purchase for, well, all the fuckwads who assume what they think they ‘know’ is objective truth.

  79. says

    One of the grand pitfalls of trying to understand of defend post-modernism is that it’s so very, very easy to make into a caricature.

    Actually, whenever postmodernism is applied to medicine, it’s generally the postmodernists who make a caricature of postmodernism all by their lone selves, without any help from critics:

    http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2006/08/15/damn-those-microfascists-demanding-evide-1/ (This one has the advantage of having originally been “inspired” by PZ’s discussion of a particularly brain dead bit of postmodernist nonsense.)

    http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2006/12/13/what-a-fine-blogiversary-present-the-ret/

    http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2008/09/10/the-revenge-of-microfascism-pomo-strikes/

    You know what you get when you mix postmodernism with science-based medicine, don’t you? A more “fluid” concept of evidence:

    http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2008/05/19/integrative-medicine-at-yale-a-more-flui/

    And, no, that’s usually not a good thing—at least not in medicine it isn’t.

  80. says

    Ibis3 @ 89:

    The point is, we’re always subjects no matter what. We turn our observational eye on this or that phenomenon, but we don’t always look at ourselves looking at the phenomena. That’s what postmodernism is about. Meta analysis.

    Thank you. Your whole post was easy for me to understand and I appreciate that so much.

  81. Anthony K says

    I assume that’s the one you meant

    Well, you’re wrong. I was talking about the video illustrating billions.

    And the primary issue I see with modernism (and it’s ‘scientism’ counterpart) is that, right or wrong, it provides purchase for, well, all the fuckwads who assume what they think they ‘know’ is objective truth that make up the bread and butter of the atheist movement.

    FIFM. And I’m not pointing a finger at you with that comment, Nick.

  82. Jacob Schmidt says

    Nick Gotts

    If you claim that there is no objective truth, but you don’t actually mean it, you’re being unclear about what you’re claiming, and quite unnecessarily so, since there are perfectly clear ways of saying what you do mean.

    I never claimed there was no objective truth.

    You seem to be confused.

    Moreover, they are a useful approximation to the truth, while “there is no objective truth” is nowhere near the truth, and thus is not useful.

    We were discussing “viewpoints of the oppressed vs. viewpoints of the oppressors.” You claimed that each were equally valid since neither was objectively true. Except false assumptions can be useful if they bring us close enough to truth. It is entirely possible that one is more valid than the other.

  83. Anthony K says

    Ibis3 @ 89 says it much better than I do. For the record, I don’t think of myself as a post-modernist, nor do I think of myself as a modernist. But these critiques are important.

    For me, it’s how I check the rise of Dawkinsianism.

  84. Anthony K says

    Fuck, I fucked up those blockquotes in trying to fix my own comment. I was pointing at an actual example from the modern skepticoatheist movement of real life modernists; the ones postmodernism arose to critique.

  85. jpone says

    @93 Orac

    Just so. And with regard to medicine, I am in complete agreement.

    My take away from the original article was mostly about post-modernism with regard to history and the history of science. My opening quote was my initial reaction to how people immediately react when the term “post-modern” comes up.

    But if you read that as a defense of post-modernism in general, applied willy-nilly, then I stated it rather badly.

  86. Jacob Schmidt says

    There is nothing scientifically wrong with eugenics. It properly uses the theory of heritability. The issue with eugenics is moral not scientific.

    Quantum physics is abused in all sorts of weird ways. Any field can be mischaracterized to defend some false position. If that’s your objection, you’d might as well abandon all hope.

  87. John Horstman says

    But you know what post-modernism is, right? It’s a skeptical approach to literature, art, even science, that attempts to deconstruct the premises and presuppositions and cultural influences on a work. It’s an acknowledgment that nothing humans create appears out of a vacuum and that perfect objectivity is an illusion.

    Word. In its simplest formulation, postmodernism is simply the recognition that context matters in determining meaning (because all humans exist within a social context of some sort, and ‘meaning’ is a function of how we abstract experience). The implication is then that all knowledge is a product of a specific historical-cultural context, or ‘discourse’ in the jargon of the field; this doesn’t mean it’s WRONG, but questioning the influence of the context of production for a given meme (used here as ‘unit of human knowledge’) on that meme is important. Not doing so is why, say, anthropometry became a ‘hard’ scientific discipline for a while (and there is some anthropometry that provides fascinating and useful data sets, but the analysis was almost uniformly ethnocentrist and racist as hell). That context matters in determining meaning is denied by hardcore essentialists, but that doesn’t really matter a whole lot, since absolute essentialism is so easy to refute (one needs only a single counter-example to refute universal claims). Postmodernism has been broadly accepted in every scientific discipline in the academy (even physics – quantum mechanics, with its observer frames and indeterminacy, is thoroughly postmodern science); the categorical complaints about “postmodernism” are a lot like the complaints creationists level against evolution – they’re usually the result of a deep misunderstanding of the topic in question.

    @Nick Gotts #2: No, actually. You’re using the Latin alphabet and Arabic numerals to represent the English language in your statement. That you formulate your statement that particular way is a function of a given context. Further, even if we assume we can have a definite read of your abstraction (despite the fact that for us to know how you’re abstracting something, we need to use language, which is a process of multiple translations introducing various possibilities of error – your abstracted idea must be translated into language, that must then be expressed by you, that must then be heard by me, and that must then be re-abstracted by me, and every step has the potential to introduce error), the fact that you view numbers as discrete entities (as opposed to, say, a continuum of quantity) that can be defined as ‘prime’ at all is a function of a particular construction of mathematics, a specific abstract model for how the universe works produced in a specific context. As for the second statement, I could just as easily argue that the Earth is ageless/has existed as long as time has – as far as we can tell, the amount of matter/energy in the universe is constant, so the fundamental particles that constitute what you’re delineating as ‘Earth’ have been around for the entirety of existence. Your discrete delineation of a planet is a cultural construct. For the third, see the previous two, rinse, and repeat.

    @sonderval #4: That’s just silly; the fact that we can’t know anything with 100% certainty does not mean that every proposed model to represent some aspect of reality is equally valid. I’m sure there’s a name for that informal fallacy, though I do not know it.

    @lostintime #7: There likely is an objective truth (though indeterminacy suggests there might not be just one – I’ll leave that one to the physicists), and we will never know what it is with 100% certainty. That’s not actually a problem.

    @lostintime #16: That many scientists think they’re working with objective truth instead of constructed, abstracted models (like mathematics – math is a system we have devised to closely approximate various qualities of the universe in abstracted terms) is a huge problem.

    @grim #18: Anyone claiming we can’t use scientific methods and empirical evidence to gain an understanding of our world is wrong; what we can’t ever achieve is a perfect understanding of our world.

    @Adela Doiron #20: The same way “skepticism” gives us misogynist fuckwits like Penn Jillette? Anyone can claim a label – that doesn’t mean they’re doing a good job of putting a given philosophy or system or whatever into practice.

  88. Bicarbonate says

    Yes Ibis3 @ 89 said what I was trying to say but I learned my epistemology in French and I have trouble translating or getting the French out of my head which is why I was talking about “constructing objects” or la construction de l’objet de recherche for example, prime numbers. Oh boy. Brain fog.

  89. brucegorton says

    No. It is often outright harmful, as Orac illustrates with medicine, and when you boil it down past the obscurantism it ends up being exactly the same thing as solipsism, except it is applied to quite frankly racist stereotypes of other cultures (in the mode of the Noble Savage) instead of individuals.

    This leaves is pretty damn useless for figuring out much of anything.

  90. Nick Gotts says

    But that conflation is actually a problem with modernism. – Anthony K.@87

    No, it’s not. Modernism certainly has its problems, such as the ideas of inevitable progress and ideal observers, but these automatically imply the existence of a distinction between what is true and what we know.

    Ibis3@89

    Perhaps those are “objective truths”

    Well are they, in your opinion, or aren’t they? Be brave, commit yourself.

    but what post-modernism tells us is that we necessarily have subjective perceptions through which we filter them: e.g. why do we have “prime number” as a concept? how can we conceive of billions of years when our biology is fixed to perceive years in terms of decades? why do we care about how old the earth is?

    Yes, without postmodernism, how would psychologists, and historians of science and mathematics, ever have realized that those questions could be asked?

    Oh, wait. They did, and long before postmodernism was thought of.

    That’s what postmodernism is about. Meta analysis.

    Then it’s odd that its proponents appear so completely devoid of self-awareness that they can’t see, or ignore, the self-undermining nature of saying there is no objective truth.

  91. says

    [Attempt at clear-language philosophy]

    I think the objection to objective truth is more about the “truth” part than the “objective” part. The truth of anything is always based on an explicit or tacit theory of truth, and that theory of truth, whatever it is, does not end up having a solid, bullet-proof justification.

    The truth of 17 being a prime and the truth of the earth being billions of years old are based on two different theories, one logical/axiomatic and one empirical/inductive. Most truths in science are also both provisional (best we can do right now) and proximate (best match right now). All of these are dependent on conceptual models.

    When you get to the bottom of what most people mean when they say they believe in objective truth, it usually amounts to something like, “Physical reality can’t be several different ways at once, and once it is a certain way, it doesn’t change to a different way. And it’s that way whether or not anyone can comprehend or explain the way it is”. One could argue that everyone should accept that much, since without it there’s not much point in saying anything at all.

  92. M can help you with that. says

    Nick Gotts —

    Well if there’s no objective truth, no view is more valid than any other.

    Only if by “truth” you mean “reality,” which in postmodernism isn’t the same thing at all. “Truth” here is a function of language*, not reality — and unless we’re living in a fictional world (i.e. a world where “reality” and “truth” are made of the same thing, i.e. language), then language cannot be identical to reality, thus there’s no possibility of “objective truth”. We can (and I think that you and I agree that we should) try to place our language in some usable contact with reality, but we’ll always fail to make that relationship complete, because language has its limits (and language isn’t the same thing as reality).

    And what’s the status of the distinction between a priori and a posteriori knowledge?

    A priori knowledge is functionally equivalent to definition. And definitions are always leaky (though when done carefully, e.g. assorted specialized jargons, can be close enough to water-tight to be useful).

    *(or systems of representation generally)

  93. Bicarbonate says

    106 Nick

    Then it’s odd that its proponents appear so completely devoid of self-awareness that they can’t see, or ignore, the self-undermining nature of saying there is no objective truth.

    Don’t put them all in the same boat. It’s like an other field, full of the less interesting and pretentious. Take what you need and leave the rest.

  94. John Horstman says

    @Nick Gotts #2: I should clarify my description of math a little. Within the abstracted system that is mathematics, 17 is a prime number. This is true, but it is not ‘objective truth’, as it is an abstraction, and it relies upon apriori assumption of the given abstracted model – in this case, mathematics. Without knowledge of math, that statement isn’t true (or false, probably) – I can posit a subject position in which it is simply nonsense, so it’s not objective truth, since to be “objective” it would have to be true for any and all possible subjects. “17” and “prime” are models we created to represent real-world concepts, as in the entire concept of “truth” in fact. The real world simply exists as it does; “true” is a value judgement we make about how closely a given abstraction matches reality.

  95. Anthony K says

    It is often outright harmful, as Orac illustrates with medicine

    Let’s look at that.

    You know what you get when you mix postmodernism with science-based medicine, don’t you? A more “fluid” concept of evidence:

    To what then do we owe more more ‘fluid’ concepts of ‘health’ and ‘treatment'; the ones that allow us to understand and support personal directives and greater end-of-life care but meta-analyses that consider differences in subjective value systems?

    Modernism certainly has its problems, such as the ideas of inevitable progress and ideal observers, but these automatically imply the existence of a distinction between what is true and what we know.

    Except that implicit distinction was often lost on actual modernists.

  96. stevesommers says

    And the primary issue I see with modernism (and it’s ‘scientism’ counterpart) is that, right or wrong, it provides purchase for, well, all the fuckwads who assume what they think they ‘know’ is objective truth.

    I think there certainly objective truths. Whether or not human beings can ever recognize them has not been established. The proper application of science, however, is an attempt to minimize subjectivity. Maybe it succeeds maybe it doesn’t, but those who assert any “truth” such as your statement above is treading on the same thin ice they accuse others of.

  97. David Wilford says

    Orac, point taken about how “other ways of knowing” obscures itself as empirical fact when it comes to things like faith-based medicine.

    That said, post-modern thought isn’t simply an appeal to woo as it is a critique of modernism, in light of the relationship between power and knowledge.

  98. Bicarbonate says

    Gotts

    O.k., so meta analyze the meta-analysis. Or define terms. So what do you mean by truth?

  99. imthegenieicandoanything says

    I’ve said the same thing ever since I started posting on creationism, but it’s always easier to laugh (or spit) on something new by believing the parody than bother to consider what advantages it has – and post-modernism had and has a LOT to offer.

    The bullshit, “Sokal!” screamers remind me VERY much of anti-feminist “skeptics” of the 70s, who labeled the entire movement as a bunch of bra-burners who really just anted to get married. I think they got their idea of feminism from a single episode of “Petticoat Junction.”

    Like anything new, a bunch of ridiculous and opportunistic people latched on to make their names and some bucks, and the leaders who were not idiots often went too far in describing what it could do, or could do better, or simply and usefully differently. And even being wrong is very useful if it leads you to thinking more rightly.

    And it HAS had an effect, largely positive, on everyone’s way of thinking, however dishonestly people slag it.

  100. Nick Gotts says

    Jacob Schmidt@96

    I never claimed there was no objective truth.

    You seem to be confused.

    No, I’m actually discussing the OP, in which that claim is made in the quote from Singham. I’m quite unable to tell what you’re claiming, because you don’t seem to know yourself.

    We were discussing “viewpoints of the oppressed vs. viewpoints of the oppressors.” You claimed that each were equally valid since neither was objectively true.

    That’s either plain dishonest, or you are unable to read for comprehension. I said quite clearly that if we deny the existence of objective truth, we have no grounds for saying that any viewpoint is more valid than any other.

    John Horstman@103

    No, actually. You’re using the Latin alphabet and Arabic numerals to represent the English language in your statement. That you formulate your statement that particular way is a function of a given context. Further, even if we assume we can have a definite read of your abstraction (despite the fact that for us to know how you’re abstracting something, we need to use language, which is a process of multiple translations introducing various possibilities of error – your abstracted idea must be translated into language, that must then be expressed by you, that must then be heard by me, and that must then be re-abstracted by me, and every step has the potential to introduce error), the fact that you view numbers as discrete entities (as opposed to, say, a continuum of quantity) that can be defined as ‘prime’ at all is a function of a particular construction of mathematics, a specific abstract model for how the universe works produced in a specific context.

    Absolutely none of which has any bearing whatsoever on the objective fact that 17 is a prime number. If you dispute this, kindly give a factorization of it into positive integers greater than 1.

    As for the second statement, I could just as easily argue that the Earth is ageless/has existed as long as time has – as far as we can tell, the amount of matter/energy in the universe is constant, so the fundamental particles that constitute what you’re delineating as ‘Earth’ have been around for the entirety of existence. Your discrete delineation of a planet is a cultural construct.

    No, it isn’t. It has a continuous history as a solid body going back several billion years. Oh, and by the way, what’s the status of your claim that:

    Your discrete delineation of a planet is a cultural construct.

    Is that objectively true? Or is that a cultural construct? Is your answer to that question true? Or is it a cultural construct? If it’s cultural constructs all the way down, then in what sense are your cultural constructs to be preferred to alternatives? How do you even claim to know whether the alternatives you and I are maintaining are incompatible? What the fuck do you think you’re arguing about?

  101. Phillip A says

    Postmodernism, at least the variety I’m familiar with, seems to echo plain old solipsism, insisting that any assertion of objective truth or knowledge is by its nature an assertion of power. Read any of the “anti-colonialist” defenses of female genital mutilation, and you’ll understand my uneasiness. They don’t believe in moral or truth struggles, only power struggles; although they are more concerned with the cultural chauvinism practiced by Western do-gooders than the very real and brutal power exercised by men over women in these societies.

    Add colonial history into the mix, along with the fact that this philosophy was born and nursed on the European Continent, and you can put postmodernism on Freud’s couch, with a tentative diagnosis of Wild Overcompensation for White Privilege and White Guilt.

    Of course, this doesn’t invalidate PZ’s argument that science and reason must go hand in hand with human values. As he did with Sikivu Hutchinson, he takes great liberties in interpreting the words of those he’s trying to defend, in order to make them more palatable. (Reverse Strawman?)

  102. Nick Gotts says

    So what do you mean by truth? – Bicarbonate

    Correspondence with the facts: a statement T is true if and only if what T states is actually the case.

  103. Nick Gotts says

    Except that implicit distinction [between truth and knowledge] was often lost on actual modernists. – Anthony K.@111

    Of course, but that does not justify your earlier claim that failure to make the distinction was a problem with modernism rather than postmodernism.

  104. says

    PZ #48:

    Agribusiness hates the idea of seed stock, that farmers could set aside some of their production to propagate the next season’s harvest; much better if they have to buy it every year!

    This is indeed a narrative we hear a lot. And there’s definitely truth to it if by “agribusiness” you mean “seed companies” (like, obviously, Monsanto). But for produce growers, it’s a different story. And it doesn’t stop them being interested in GM crops if it means resistance to common diseases, increased yields, etc. See the case of orange growers in Florida, recently discussed in Amy Harmon‘s article in the NYT.

    I’m not trying to turn this into an article about GMO, but I think it’s useful to turn the tools of PoMo analysis toward the narratives of distrust of science and technology too.

  105. Bicarbonate says

    118 Gotts

    O.k. So, actually = really the case. Here’s a terribly hackneyed example, so is light protons or waves, which is the case? I know, boring example, but still. It depends on why you want to know, what you’re trying to do with the light.

  106. M can help you with that. says

    Correspondence with the facts: a statement T is true if and only if what T states is actually the case.

    One of the observations contributing to postmodernism is that language doesn’t work that way. When language is fundamentally ambiguous, when as a system of representation it is not identical to what it is used to attempt to describe, “what T states” is not a phrase with a precise signified in just about any context. A statement T can only “state what is actually the case” if “what is actually the case” is an instance of the same language as T (and even then it’s questionable).

  107. demonhauntedworld says

    To what then do we owe more more ‘fluid’ concepts of ‘health’ and ‘treatment’; the ones that allow us to understand and support personal directives and greater end-of-life care but meta-analyses that consider differences in subjective value systems?

    This is pure word salad. I understand all of the words individually, but put together, they make no sense.

  108. says

    The beef against post-modernism comes because it challenges the system of knowledge that the modernists claim to be building. There have always been skeptics that challenge claims to knowledge, asking “where did your knowledge come from?” and pointing out that:
    a) our senses are fallible and knowledge appears to be largely gathered from our experience via our senses
    b) our use of language is fraught – we try to use it to clarify things but discover it’s at best a poor tool and sometimes a double-edged one – I say “tomato”, you hear me say “Ayn Rand was right!”
    c) culture, which is an artifact, gets in the way of nearly everything!

    When you combine the fallibility of senses, with our attempt to communicate using language about cultural things, it represents a very serious challenge to our ability to say with certainty that we “know” things. We don’t even “know” what we’re talking about, let alone anything about it, the post-modernist says, which annoys the living fuck out of the scientist who damn well wants to be sure about observable phenomena like gravity and (pace Richard Carrier) “morality” and whatnot.

    So, yeah, it’s fashionable to sneer at post-modernism. Because post-modernism is raising many of the inconvenient objections that have been swept under the rug by the ferociously successful onrush of science.

    Those who use post-modernist tropes to object or challenge are playing the same role as the ancient skeptics did – and I’m sure that they’re just as annoying to those who think they have achieved certainty as the ancient skeptics were to their dogmatist peers, for the same reason.

  109. Nick Gotts says

    Without knowledge of math, that statement isn’t true (or false, probably) – I can posit a subject position in which it is simply nonsense, so it’s not objective truth, since to be “objective” it would have to be true for any and all possible subjects. – John Horstman@112

    Utter bilge. Before any life existed, there were molecules consisting of 17 atoms and molecules consisting of 18. The latter, but not the former, could split into two or more molecules containing the same number of atoms. In fact, 17 is a prime in all possible worlds, including those in which no subjects ever exist, and those in which infinite numbers do, but all believe it’s composite.

  110. Anthony K says

    This is pure word salad. I understand all of the words individually, but put together, they make no sense.

    ‘Pure word salad’ as in a diagnostic feature of some mental disorders? No.

    ‘Pure word salad’ as in sentence I wrote terribly? Yes.

    To what then do we owe more more ‘fluid’ concepts of ‘health’ and ‘treatment’; [in other words] the [more fluid concepts] that allow us to understand and support personal directives and greater end-of-life care, [but from the type of] meta-analyses that consider differences in subjective value systems [that arose from postmodernist critiques]?

    Sorry about that; I’m trying and failing to multitask.

  111. Jacob Schmidt says

    Nick Gotts

    No, I’m actually discussing the OP, in which that claim is made in the quote from Singham.

    See 108.

    That’s either plain dishonest, or you are unable to read for comprehension.

    Go read the exchanges that lead to that comment. The failure is yours.

  112. demonhauntedworld says

    Well, in that case we should dismiss medicine since the Lancet published Wakefield…

    Except that the Lancet publicly retracted the article, and Wakefield lost his medical license.

    Social Text doubled down after Sokal let them in the hoax, when its editors said: “its status as parody does not alter, substantially, our interest in the piece, itself, as a symptomatic document”

  113. Nick Gotts says

    We don’t even “know” what we’re talking about – Marcus Ranum@124

    Then how do you think you know that?

  114. Denverly says

    I really, really, really despise post-modernism. I still have nightmares where professors, fascinated with deconstructing the most minute detail, argue over what the author really meant when he used the word “green” to describe the eggs and ham. Why green? What is the nature of green? Where does the meaning of green intersect with the nature of ham? Can we ever truly know what was meant by pairing the green, eggs, and ham? What did the use of the green, eggs, and ham tell us about the life of the author?

    Can we ever truly know what Seuss meant by green eggs and ham? No, but I’d stake my reputation that it’s not code for the dangers of nuclear weapon proliferation. It’s a pretty fair bet he meant green eggs and ham. No, a post-modernist says, he didn’t mean green, he meant jealous, because green is the color of jealousy.

    My definition of post-modernism is the inference of evidence for pet theories by way of spurious relationships or dismissal of the obvious.

  115. Anthony K says

    Of course, but that does not justify your earlier claim that failure to make the distinction was a problem with modernism rather than postmodernism.

    Of course it does. There’s no ‘objective’ modernism other than what was practiced by modernists.

  116. Bicarbonate says

    130 Denverly

    My definition of post-modernism is the inference of evidence for pet theories by way of spurious relationships or dismissal of the obvious.

    Yes, often just a power play on the part of the professor. But still there’s something to be learned from some flavors of post-modernism.

  117. Anthony K says

    No, a post-modernist says, he didn’t mean green, he meant jealous, because green is the color of jealousy.

    Sigh. No, the post-modernist says that green eggs and ham as a metaphor for jealousy is just as valid an interpretation on the part of the reader as whatever the author’s original intent was.

    (See? I’m actually a modernist about postmodernism.)

  118. keithm says

    @103

    Your discrete delineation of a planet is a cultural construct.

    That’s a load of complete bollocks.

    While the overall material that made up the Earth has (largely) been around (in terms of subatomic particles) since the beginning of the universe, more or less as far as we can tell, the state of those particles being arranged in the form of a planet has distinctly different nature in readily described objective terms from when those particles were in the form of interstellar gasses and atoms, which had distinctly different natures in readily described objective terms when the majority of those gasses and atoms were components of one or more stars that eventually blew up.

    Trying to claim that those differences are a cultural construct is exactly an example of why a lot of post-modern criticism is a complete load of total bullshit that gets spouted off by people who apparently can’t be bothered to learn something of what their trying to criticize.

  119. JohnnieCanuck says

    Visualising a billion. So, via one of my kid’s grade school teachers, though most will want to leave it as a gedanken process:

    Get some mm graph paper. Trim some of the margins carefully so that the sheets overlap without hiding any of the 1 mm squares. Mount the collection of graph paper sheets on a backing board such that it is a metre on a side. The teacher put it up on the wall at eye height so anyone could stand there and view a million things, all at once.

    For a North American billion, imagine mounting a thousand of these panels perhaps 10 metres high by 100 metres long. Standing in the middle, 50 metres is definitely too far away to make out individual squares, so imagine curling it around into a 10 metre high cylinder which gives a radius under 16 metres. I’m guessing that’s almost enough for people with excellent eyesight to make out individual 1 mm squares while standing in the centre and looking horizontally. 16 metres away and 10-2=8 metres above their heads would be another matter.

    What’s a post-modernist going to make of this kind of analysis, I wonder?

  120. Nick Gotts says

    language cannot be identical to reality, thus there’s no possibility of “objective truth” – M can help you with that@108

    This does not follow. I can’t even see why you think it does. Of course truth is a function of systems of representation. In the case of language, a statement is true if and only if what it states is actually the case:it doesn’t have to be identical to reality at all.

    Jacob Schmidt@127,

    No, the failure is not mine. I’ve re-read the exchange and I’m quite clearly saying that if we deny the existence of objective truth, then any viewpoint is as valid as any other. I am quite clearly not saying, as you claimed, that there is no objective truth: I’ve been arguing the opposite throughout.

  121. blbt5 says

    “Modernism” seems a bit gratuitous and “post-modernism” narcissistic. But always grant modernism, at least as an immediate reflection on the past. The real split is between modernism and classicism, at the close of the 19th century. The classic view is that there is an absolute truth, ultimately expressed in science and mathematics, reaching its climax in positivism. and expressed in the tradition of Aristotle, Plato, Kant and finally Popper. Modernism opposes the positivist idea of objectivity with evolution, not just in the biological sense, but in the dialectical ideal of Hegel, made practical by Marx, Darwin, Einstein, Wittgenstein and Habermas. Kuhn is often misread in the same way as Marx; neither thought science was inherently objective, only noting that, being falsifiable, it was constantly changing, and therefore transcendental. Modernism is recognition of the social and scientific inability to predict a revolutionary future, while retaining confidence in their ability to analyze the past and thus create a progressive politics. Modernism is a view that, any evolutionary creature, well adapted at the moment is also in the process of invisible and unpredictable change. The modern vs. classical is also an ideological power struggle that has been raging for centuries between owners of empirical knowledge (STEM disciplines) and owners of social knowledge, including religion. Yesterday on the radio show one of PZ’s listeners commented that science and religion were equally suspect, a view sometimes called “postmodern”. The listener was rejecting the power struggle, trying to get a piece of transcendental ownership.

  122. Bicarbonate says

    One of the observations contributing to postmodernism is that language doesn’t work that way. When language is fundamentally ambiguous, when as a system of representation it is not identical to what it is used to attempt to describe, “what T states” is not a phrase with a precise signified in just about any context. A statement T can only “state what is actually the case” if “what is actually the case” is an instance of the same language as T (and even then it’s questionable).

    –M can help you with that @122

    Yeah, but so what. Qualia and all. The problem is, Is T a statement adequate enough to allow us to build that bridge? In the case where T is some statement or equation about stress in metal, will the bridge withstand the currents, wind, weight, etc. Not whether T is true in all worlds all the time and beyond language.

  123. Physics or Stamp Collecting says

    Nick Gotts @ 116

    John Horstman@103

    No, actually. You’re using the Latin alphabet and Arabic numerals to represent the English language in your statement. That you formulate your statement that particular way is a function of a given context. Further, even if we assume we can have a definite read of your abstraction (despite the fact that for us to know how you’re abstracting something, we need to use language, which is a process of multiple translations introducing various possibilities of error – your abstracted idea must be translated into language, that must then be expressed by you, that must then be heard by me, and that must then be re-abstracted by me, and every step has the potential to introduce error), the fact that you view numbers as discrete entities (as opposed to, say, a continuum of quantity) that can be defined as ‘prime’ at all is a function of a particular construction of mathematics, a specific abstract model for how the universe works produced in a specific context.

    Absolutely none of which has any bearing whatsoever on the objective fact that 17 is a prime number. If you dispute this, kindly give a factorization of it into positive integers greater than 1.

    If you’re working in base 8, 17 factors to 3 and 5 quite nicely. John Horstman is right on about this being true within a specifically constructed mathematical framework.

  124. davidjanes says

    Dan Dennett just had a little bit to say on this as well.

    Postmodernism, the school of “thought” that proclaimed “There are no truths, only interpretations” has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for “conversations” in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster.

    I will admit that his description of post-modernism jibes more closely with the way I have seen it expressed than PZ’s description does.

  125. Denverly says

    blbt5 wrote:

    The listener was rejecting the power struggle, trying to get a piece of transcendental ownership.

    A post-modernist word salad in its natural habitat. I would have said the listener was talking out of his ass, but I don’t have the flair for verbosity that is the hallmark of most post-modernists with whom I am casually acquainted.

  126. Nick Gotts says

    There’s no ‘objective’ modernism other than what was practiced by modernists. – Anthony K.@

    That science progresses toward the truth was and is a central feature of modernism, which I wolud think effectively all modernists would assent to, even if they failed to apply it consistently. And of course many modernists did not generally fail to do so, and many postmodernists (if not all – I haven’t yet seen one who doesn’t) do. So to describe it as a problem with modernism rather than postmodernism is absurd.

    I’m off to bed*. I may or may not resume this tomorrow.

    *This is, I assure you, objectively true. But I admit that my bed is a cultural construct – the frame was culturally constructed several decades ago, but my wife and I culturally reconstructed one of the boards that support the mattress, and culturally swapped the mattress for another, a few days ago.

  127. Jacob Schmidt says

    Nick Gotts

    I’ve re-read the exchange and I’m quite clearly saying that if we deny the existence of objective truth, then any viewpoint is as valid as any other.[1] I am quite clearly not saying, as you claimed, that there is no objective truth: I’ve been arguing the opposite throughout.[2]

    1) You’ve yet to substantiate this in any way. Like, at all. You’ve merely asserted it. I’ve shown that a false idea can be more useful than another false idea (ideality vs. rainbows and butterflies), so I really don’t see where the fuck you get this from.

    2) Go back to the offending paragraph and change “since” to “if”: “You claimed that each were equally valid [if] neither was objectively true.” Mea culpa on poor editing.

  128. Anthony K says

    While the overall material that made up the Earth has (largely) been around (in terms of subatomic particles) since the beginning of the universe, more or less as far as we can tell, the state of those particles being arranged in the form of a planet has distinctly different nature in readily described objective terms from when those particles were in the form of interstellar gasses and atoms, which had distinctly different natures in readily described objective terms when the majority of those gasses and atoms were components of one or more stars that eventually blew up.

    Trying to claim that those differences are a cultural construct is exactly an example of why a lot of post-modern criticism is a complete load of total bullshit that gets spouted off by people who apparently can’t be bothered to learn something of what their trying to criticize.

    Not at all. ‘Planet’ is a concept, a model for a confluence of a number of functions, as we understand them (planetary formation processes, gravity, etc.) The boundaries, of course, fuzz at the edges. There’s no discrete line between the atmosphere of a planet and space. Iridium itself is present in small amounts in planets like Earth, but the iridium layer at the KT boundary is part of the planet and yet anomalous in such a way as to provide evidence for something non-planetary in nature. (And planets, as conceptual models, are subject to change. See ‘Pluto’ for such an example.)

    The issue is in how we use language to describe models, and how we confuse the language for the model for the ‘reality’, whatever that is.

    But I admit that my bed is a cultural construct – the frame was culturally constructed several decades ago, but my wife and I culturally reconstructed one of the boards that support the mattress, and culturally swapped the mattress for another, a few days ago.

    What you call a bed, and more importantly what you do not, most certainly is culturally constructed. So you’re close to understanding the issue, at least.

  129. says

    @129 Nick Gotts
    Then how do you think you know that?

    That we don’t know? I could have formulated that as “I am unconvinced that…” if you prefer.

  130. Anthony K says

    That science progresses toward the truth was and is a central feature of modernism, which I wolud think effectively all modernists would assent to, even if they failed to apply it consistently.

    Really? And that’s not conflating a thing we can do (science) with an objective we grant we cannot know but only approximate?

    I would think even the least self-aware modernists would say that science progresses towards better, more accurate models of the truth we cannot know.

  131. AndrewD says

    I would recommend Christopher Butler’s book: Postmodernism, A very short Introduction (Oxford Press)to anyone wishing to discuss postmodernism. Postmodernism started as an artistic movement in response to the modernists of the early 20th century. It was later that it became applied to Social Science and politics (where it was similar to the Critical Theory of the Frankfort School of philosophers) It was only later that it was applied to the natural sciences-incorrectly in my view. The postmodernist discussions in Social science and politics were and are a sensible approach to the problem of “objectivity” in human based areas of study and to the need to beware of the biases of the person doing the study. In theory the Natural Sciences should be less susceptible to and self-correcting with regard to bias due to the beliefs of the scientist.

  132. says

    1) Whether you call it postmodernism or not, I think studying and attempting to determine and appreciate just how deeply our social context influences our perceptions is a very worthwhile effort. Because I have been regularly impressed with just how deeply and pervasively it seems to do so. I trust people have heard of the Asch conformity experiments. They’re worthwhile reading, if you haven’t. And this is only a tiny part of it, I think. The language you speak creates part of your context, what you even find it easy to imagine. What you saw on TV or the internet, this year and the last twenty, as well. What you think is important, what you are likely to think is true, what you are likely to pay attention to.

    2) The fact that purveyors of pseudoscience (oh, and by the way, religion; I’ve met at least a few clergy who seem to figure claiming they’re ‘postmodern’ makes a belief in god somehow intellectually defensible) attempt to claim postmodernism somehow makes their claims equally valid to anyone else’s doesn’t necessarily rubbish the whole field, seems to me. I mean hell, they use math, too, on occasion. Just very poorly and/or deceptively. But the fact they do so doesn’t somehow make algebra rotten to the core.

    3) I do think it’s overreaching to assume from the fact that we cannot reliably know or agree upon aspects of it that there simply is no objective reality. But asserting aspects at least are not reliably knowable seems like basic epistemology to me, hardly a startling claim. This, I think, has always been the point of schism for me. Someone says there’s no objective reality, I shake my head, wonder what they’re selling, or which pulpit they just came from. Someone says we can never be certain we know it, and should maintain a healthy suspicion about the limits of our knowledge and certainty, that’s well worth keeping in mind, if a bit so what else is new.

    4) I’ve never really seen postmodern notions about knowledge and science as natural enemies so much as natural allies. A healthy skepticism about and appreciation of limits of your perception and instrument noise–where the instrument may well even be you–belongs right there in the first year intro courses of any natural sciences, after all.

  133. says

    . ‘Planet’ is a concept, a model for a confluence of a number of functions, as we understand them (planetary formation processes, gravity, etc.) The boundaries, of course, fuzz at the edges.

    This is an important point! Many concepts are vague, as well. Is Pluto a “planet”? Well, we get to see that whether or not something is a “planet” is apparently decided by a committee. There are many many many concepts that we use all the time which are actually vague concepts, so they are not only subject to interpretation they require interpretation.

    Some labels are less vague than others. 17 is pretty good (for average values of 17) but what about things like “right” and “good” and “fair” – important concepts that we seem to use in ways that affect things, but which we arguably don’t share a common understanding of.

  134. says

    I suppose I don’t need to mention this but, with vague concepts, our cultural biases really come out and dance. Wanna bet your ‘objective’ definition of “fair” changes a whole lot depending on the cultural context?

  135. David Marjanović says

    vulgar Popperians often trot out the notion that science only disproves, but of course if you disprove A, you inevitably prove ~A

    Well, yes, but that’s rather useless, because “¬A” is just a cover term for B through Z and ა through ჶ.

    reaching its climax in positivism. and expressed in the tradition of Aristotle, Plato, Kant and finally Popper.

    No, not Popper.

    Modernism opposes the positivist idea of objectivity with evolution, not just in the biological sense, but in the dialectical ideal of Hegel, made practical by Marx, Darwin, Einstein, Wittgenstein and Habermas.

    Dude, seriously, if you believe that what biologists call “evolution” (which we do for weird historical reasons) is a subset of “evolution” in some larger sense, you need to learn basic biology from scratch. Even what astronomers call “evolution” has nothing to do with what biologists call “evolution”.

  136. Denverly says

    Anthony K wrote:

    The issue is in how we use language to describe models, and how we confuse the language for the model for the ‘reality’, whatever that is.

    And now you have discovered that intellectual place where mental masturbation about the insufficiency of language to represent reality has become disdain for asking questions. Questions cannot be answered, because any answer is not an answer, simply a subjective interpretation of an answer conveyed improperly by language incapable of describing it.

    I will definitely have Foucault nightmares tonight. Probably the one about being in a glass cell with everyone watching me.

  137. Anthony K says

    Well, we get to see that whether or not something is a “planet” is apparently decided by a committee.

    Because in small ‘r’ reality, there aren’t such things as planets. There are things that orbit other things, some of which don’t undergo nuclear fusion, and some of those which don’t are pulled into a roughly spherical shape due to internal gravity, and some of those have cleared their general regions of other astronomical objects. We call those things ‘planets’, for historical reasons as much as effective model-making.

  138. Anthony K says

    And now you have discovered that intellectual place where mental masturbation about the insufficiency of language to represent reality has become disdain for asking questions. Questions cannot be answered, because any answer is not an answer, simply a subjective interpretation of an answer conveyed improperly by language incapable of describing it.

    You were talking about postmodernism in critiques of art and literature. What questions am I showing disdain for?

    (And I am by no means engaging in mental masturbation. If people wouldn’t show how little they understand how they conflate the language they use with the reality they think they’re talking about (cf. the discussion of ‘planet’) then I wouldn’t be having this conversation here at all. It’s not like I haven’t had my fill of these conversations nearly two decades ago. But the problem persists, and so do I.)

  139. Adam Leuer says

    Interesting reading this as a current Philosophy major at the University of Illinois. The 1990s conference on deconstructionism that Michael Bérubé wrote about is still legend around here among Philosophy of Science and Science Studies types. I took a Philosophy of Science course last semester, and the professor devoted an entire lecture to recounting the Sokal hoax and the ensuing debate. He actually assigned us to read Sokal’s article first, without telling us the history, and asked us for our impressions. None of us wanted to be the only one who didn’t understand the essay, so when he asked for our thoughts on it everyone pretended to find it interesting and insightful. We had a good laugh when he told us it was complete bullshit.

  140. M can help you with that. says

    Nick Gotts @ 136:

    This does not follow. I can’t even see why you think it does. Of course truth is a function of systems of representation. In the case of language, a statement is true if and only if what it states is actually the case:it doesn’t have to be identical to reality at all.

    “Actually the case” is, because language isn’t identical to reality, always a matter of degree or “close enough-ness”. And the “enough” is dependent on the needs of the immediate language-users involved. When we’re talking about a postmodern rejection of truth (or “Truth”), this is what we mean — it’s the recognition that a statement is an attempt to describe reality, but since reality itself isn’t a creation of language, there’s no identity between statements and bits of reality.

    Sure, you can conclude that the argument is ridiculous if you insist on definitions of a few of the words involved that are contrary to how they were actually being used in the argument. Kent Hovind knows all about that one. Taking a sort of vulgar linguistic Platonism as a premise would also lead to a rejection of this skepticism regarding language. I’m not sure you want to commit yourself to either stance, though.

  141. Gregory Greenwood says

    My attitude toward post-modernism has probably been coloured by the scourge of pretentious twits (of which I met more than a few at university and since) who have attempted to subvert the entire field to claim that whatever their prefered woo happens to be is absolutely as valid as knowledge gained by rigorous scientific means because of ‘post-modernism’ – a term invoked with a turn of phrase that borders on the reverent, while at the same time making it abundantly clear that they have no understanding whatsoever of the academic background of the field, and that to them it is simply one of those convenient catch phrases that means whatever they want it to mean from one moment to the next. A bit like the hyperskeptics who invoke their particular, unreasonable brand of skepticism to deny the validity of any experience they find uncomfortable.

    As a result of this unfortunate history with a bastardised form of post-modernism, I went through a phase of being pretty hostile to the whole idea on a point of (admittedly rather short-sighted) principle, and I am still struggling with that bias. So, and being aware that I may not have the best judgement with regard to this topic, I would suggest that post-modernism, as applied to scientific endeavour, would be a bit like a medicine – very useful taken in moderation, but rapidly becoming toxic if taken in excess.

    A serious analysis of the values and biases that underpin the execution of scientific endeavour could help us understand how to minimise their impact. As an example, it would be very useful to examine the cultural baggage with regard to the current dominant white, cis/het and male demographic within science professions and how that might influence research priorities and subtly shape our understanding of the findings. It might also help us better understand the means by which it might be possible to start changing the culture within science education and research in order to make it more inclusivist.

    Hopefully it will prove possible to focus on that kind of practical application wothout having to spend too much time arguing with the kind of people who would seek to exploit the post-modernist rejection of absolute objectivity as an ‘in’ to try to argue that gravity should be viewed as a social construct, that climate change is ‘just one opinion among many’, or to advocate for giving space to creationists in science cirriculums on the basis that ‘all ideas are equal’…

  142. scourge99 says

    post modernism is inundated with a bunch of kooks and loons that engage in obscurantism. I’d rather beat myself in the head with a hammer than deal with people who intentionally use unclear language to avoid precision and clarity.

    A good label for them is “quantum apologists” – the very process of observing their position and trying to pin them down on something changes their position.

  143. M can help you with that. says

    Denverly @ 153:

    And now you have discovered that intellectual place where mental masturbation about the insufficiency of language to represent reality has become disdain for asking questions.

    On the contrary — I think it’s the intellectual place where there’s no longer ever an excuse to stop asking questions, because there are no final, absolute, transcendent, capital-A Answers. This is where it gets fun in relation to science: it means that we don’t accept any particular theory as the absolute and complete explanation for reality, we can always hope to find something better.

  144. keithm says

    @146

    I would think even the least self-aware modernists would say that science progresses towards better, more accurate models of the truth we cannot know.

    Says who? Saying that we cannot know the truth is, as people have noted, an absolute statement of objectivity that cannot be uttered by someone claiming that no truth is objective. Except that they do all the goddamn time.

    The fact of the matter is that post-modern can very quickly descend into a morass of absurd solipsism that is utterly useless. Questioning whether a conclusion is real or biased is a useful exercise. Questioning whether something provides a benefit is a useful exercise. Trying to run to the edges of something and finding the boundary is fuzzy isn’t necessarily proof that the “something” doesn’t have a basis in reality. Yes, the boundary between the atmosphere of Earth and interplanetary space is fuzzy, and deciding where it ends is often purely arbitrary, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to point at a volume of space where Earth isn’t and the volume of space where Earth is and claim there’s no essential difference between the two just because the boundary is fuzzy. That might make an interesting philosophical exercise. If you’re trying to figure out where to put a communications satellite for people to use, it’s a pointless waste of time.

  145. says

    Like with so many things, the problem isn’t ‘post-modernism’, it’s many of the adherents. Too many times I see post-modern babble used to obscure poor ideas with purple prose, and to create the simulation of an intellectual elite by inventing ‘deeper meanings’ in what often seems to end up a case of the emperor having no clothes.

    I once used a random generator to construct a post modern essay and put it side by side with the ramblings of a particularly annoying post modernist of my acquaintance and challenged others to determine which paper was which. Close to half of the so-called ‘intellectuals’ reading the essays couldn’t tell the difference.

    It’s like skepticism in some ways – so many claim they are and use it to dismiss others, but when the surface gets scratched, turns out they are all full of shit.

    There are objective truths, and there are subjective truths. Objective truths are what are commonly referred to as ‘facts’ – in base 10, 1+1=2. Then there are subjective truths – ‘mothers love their children’. I see many post-modernists conflating ‘some things are subjective and require context’ with ‘there is no truth’. In the past I made a comment stating that ‘some 10 years olds I know are more mature and intelligent than some 40 year olds I know’ and had a post-modernist go off on how that meant I secretly understood and sympathized with child molestation because of the ‘subjective truth’ that some 10 year olds are capable of consent and blah de fucking blah de stupid. The objective truth is that even if a particular 10 year old is more mature and intelligent than a particular 40 year old, that 10 year old still lacks both life experience and agency to be capable of consent. But alas, the ‘post-modernist’ had apparently fled from the very idea of rationality in favor of their own apparent latent pedophilia and remained secure in the ‘truth’ that I secretly thought child molestation was fine but society kept me from admitting it.

    Post modernism is definitely in need of the same sort of rehabilitating enemy ‘skepticism’ is.

  146. Anthony K says

    The fact of the matter is that post-modern can very quickly descend into a morass of absurd solipsism that is utterly useless.

    So? Spend some years in the skeptics community. Hard-assed evidence-loving science-types, every one, and yet uselessness is a common feature.

    Yes, the boundary between the atmosphere of Earth and interplanetary space is fuzzy, and deciding where it ends is often purely arbitrary, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to point at a volume of space where Earth isn’t and the volume of space where Earth is and claim there’s no essential difference between the two just because the boundary is fuzzy.

    You know, I’d be less of a hard-ass if scientists were so fucking functionally illiterate. At no point did I say there was no essential difference. What I did say is that the word planet and the thing you think you’re talking about when you say planet are not the same things. I wrote several other comments on the subject, for your astronomical edification more than anything.

    That might make an interesting philosophical exercise.

    Would you rather we talked about atoms and electrons and whether they’re raisins in a bun or not?

    If you’re trying to figure out where to put a communications satellite for people to use, it’s a pointless waste of time.

    Are you kidding? Since there’s not actual fucking boundary, but gradiations of less this and more that, where we define those boundaries and what the actual physical conditions are in places that we decide as more space-like and less-atmosphere like do matter.

    Jeez. Are you an engineer or something?

  147. Denverly says

    Anthony K wrote:

    What questions am I showing disdain for?

    All questions. Or rather, “questioning” in principle. Nothing can truly be answered, therefore questions are pointless. At least, that’s what my subjective interpretation of the language you used to represent reality caused me to answer. Because this is just as valid an interpretation on the part of the reader (me) as whatever the author’s original intent was (you).

  148. Bicarbonate says

    This is the first time I’ve laughed all the way through a thread on Pharyngula. This was fun! Goodnight all.

  149. Jacob Schmidt says

    Nothing can truly be answered, therefore questions are pointless.

    Where do you get this shit? Can you actually point to a quote?

  150. davidjanes says

    If you’re working in base 8, 17 factors to 3 and 5 quite nicely.

    Place 17 pennies on the ground and try to factor the stack. I don’t care if you label the quantity as 17, 21, or 11, you can’t divide those coins into equal stacks of greater than one and less than the whole. You are playing a semantic game, but the underlying fundamental truth of the primality of the quantity represented in base 10 as 17 remains unchanged, regardless of social or semantic context.

  151. Anthony K says

    All questions. Or rather, “questioning” in principle. Nothing can truly be answered, therefore questions are pointless. At least, that’s what my subjective interpretation of the language you used to represent reality caused me to answer. Because this is just as valid an interpretation on the part of the reader (me) as whatever the author’s original intent was (you).

    I’m sorry; you seem to have mistaken someone who knows you’re wrong about what postmodernism is with someone who’s interesting in playing undergraduate idiot games.

  152. Denverly says

    @ Jacob Schmidt – Not by Anthony K, that was way back in the long long before when I was in grad school for history during the height of post-modernism. That’s why I call it mental masturbation. There were many discussions in seminars about “but what can we truly know” that descended into the “nothing can be answered, therefore questions are pointless” arena.

  153. Anthony K says

    There were many discussions in seminars about “but what can we truly know” that descended into the “nothing can be answered, therefore questions are pointless” arena.

    Hey, I’m not going to deny that I’ve been part of those discussions, done some mental masturbation myself, as well as criticised the whole exercise as nothing but. (Hell, a friend once came to me complaining about having to write a paper for a postmodernist film studies class, so we sat down for a couple of pints, wrote up some nonsense, and he turned the whole pile of Sokalese into an essay and managed to get a nine* on the thing.)

    *Out of nine. ‘Cause that’s how my alma mater used to roll.

  154. Denverly says

    Anthony K wrote:

    I’m sorry; you seem to have mistaken someone who knows you’re wrong about what postmodernism is with someone who’s interesting in playing undergraduate idiot games.

    Dude, seriously? I don’t give a shit if you insult me, but undergraduates are not “idiots” by virtue of being undergraduates, and “idiot” isn’t a particularly nice reference either. Yeah, I went full hyperbole with my response, but my point is that within the post-modernist framework that you laid down, hyperbole is valid.

    If you are going to write bullshit like this:

    No, the post-modernist says that green eggs and ham as a metaphor for jealousy is just as valid an interpretation on the part of the reader as whatever the author’s original intent was.

    and then dismiss it when I write it back to you, simply because you know what your own intent was, I am not the person playing games.

  155. viggen111 says

    Science has to be answerable to public interest, and the goals of scientists (and atheists!) should include progressive values.

    This is a very tenuous lead off of second base that touches on a slippery slope argument. In a light, I do agree that science should be answerable to public interest in that the actions of scientists advancing science should not endanger the public or scientists should be mindful of the repercussions of their research and responsible for it. However, if the “public” does not understand the value of a thread of research and does not wish to follow it (for example, the objections that a large contingent of the U.S. public for research into biological evolution) then it is foolish to suggest that science should be answerable to the public. You would say that science should not be answerable to *that* public. And you are using this as a bootstrap to the other part of your argument… that science be answerable to public interests only if it reflects what you consider to be progressive values. I disagree.

    What this is saying is that science should be geared to reflect a “progressive” agenda with the implication that a scientist ought to adopt your particular pacifist-communist outlook on life. And this includes your own tendency to cherry-pick the worst of the worst as an example of the average conservative. Science, particularly basic science, is fundamentally valueless since intrinsically expecting your particular progressive bent immediately excludes observations or data strengthening any hypotheses that favor discarding any of your “progressive” social values. If a set of well designed experiments should turn out the observation that one lineage of humans can do math (or some particular cognitive action based on a verifiable genetic trait) better than another, then the observation socially favors those people being placed in jobs that use math (for example)… even if it is intrinsically racist to believe that one lineage is genetically “superior” to another. Wouldn’t it then behoove society as a whole to maximize its success by screening for those who best fit the job, even though that’s racial profiling? Science has to at least have the argument, even if you think some particular outlook is ethically wrong. To make a sweeping generalization, science ideally should operate in a manner very like biological evolution: it should turn out every possibility and variation and then select the ones that best fit the model, even in the eventuality that some answer should prove unpalatable to any social sector at all. If the answers it provides happen to favor progressive society, so be it, but the same should be true if those answers happen to favor the odd conservative bent. After all, tomorrow’s conservatism is yesterday’s progress and sometimes it was a correct choice that can’t be elaborated on. Antineoplastons might be progressive, but they don’t improve on the needed mastectomy… and science has to be free to decide that.

    Simply put, not all progress is “good,” not all good skepticism is progressive and the ability to turn out the best answers possible should not be coupled to any social moors whatsoever –yours or any others. May not be your choice, but I personally like having the combination of brakes and accelerator. If this is scientism, so be it.

  156. says

    Berube creates a strawman here, alas. He compares po-mos who questioned basic Newtonian facts about the universe (there were and are many) to unnamed and unsourced “scientists” who were sure that they were safe from “the right wing noise machine”. Who are those scientists? Do they really exist? I’ve been in and around academia since the late 80s and have not met any tenured science folks who were apathetic about their funding being cut by right wingers. I’ve encountered dozens of highly placed faculty in the Humanities and Social Sciences who still insist that “objective truth is socially constructed all the way down”. This is, of course, unless they need to go to the emergency room or use their computer, in which case they rely on those things to function.

  157. says

    “Post-modernism says that explaing the world using the behaviour of Apollo is every bit as valid as using the behaviour of atoms.”

    IOW, die ZEIT has no idea how postmodernism works, either, and you believed them.

    I really don’t think any cultural lenses are inhibiting my understanding of the objective truths that 17 is a prime number

    math is not objective reality; it’s a model of reality. Also, objective truth and objective reality aren’t actually synonyms. The existence of reality external to humans is not the same thing as the existence of objective “truth”. because “truth” is about knowledge and comprehension not about exisence.

    But that doesn’t mean we’re incapable of obtaining ‘obvjective truth’, as if it’s some rarefied abstraction that we could never possibly obtain.

    not “rarefied abstraction”, but simply something impossible for human brains. objective knowing isn’t a think humans can do. Model-dependent realism is the closest we can get to external reality, but it’s model-based for a reason.

    Do we perceive the world through our own cultural baggage and assumptions? of course. But that does not mean that we are incapable of gaining an understanding of our world.

    irrelevant objection, as post-modernism doesn’t say there’s no relatively more or less wrong interpretations of reality; only that none of them are pure, 100% accurate understanding of it.

    I still wonder how post modernism gives us such ugly buildings and pretentious blowhards in the arts if it’s supposed to be a skeptical philosophy.

    for the same reason that modernism got us boring art and unreadable novels while at the same time being a philosophy of constant progress towards the American ideal.

    but “billions of years” isn’t an objective truth in the sense that anyone human actually understands what billions of years actually means

    That’s just crap. It’s really not far from “Were you there?”.

    Explain the precise age of the earth without using arbitrary delineations for when a planet is “born”; or model-based thinking about what a planet is. (and that’s in addition to what Anthony K said about human inability to actually grok extremely large numbers)

    What I would like to see in the next stage is a radical commitment to clear language. (Yes, it’s almost always difficult to discuss such things in simple terms, and trying to do so can easily lead to confusion. But there needs to be an acknowledgement that complicated sentences all too often don’t embody complicated ideas.)

    that would require pretending language itself isn’t socially constructed for biased discourse.
    The reason a lot of post-modernism sounds convoluted is because it’s difficult to talk about concepts never designed into a language. Trying to say the unsayable means you’re going to be using very complicated languages to work around the built-in biases. The only way to get to a “radical commitment to clear language” without choosing to ignore structural biases in that language is to create a language free of cultural bias.
    And that’s impossible almost by definition.

    Well if there’s no objective truth, no view is more valid than any other.

    if objective truth is impossible for people it still doesn’t follow that some views aren’t more biased than others. Just because you can’t be 100% right doesn’t actually mean you can’t be 50% right vs. 10% right.

    vulgar Popperians often trot out the notion that science only disproves, but of course if you disprove A, you inevitably prove ~A.

    “not A” is not a real property of anything though, it’s a linguistic device. “not A” is “everything or anything, except A”, which tells you extremely little about the objective reality of that thing that isn’t A. And it definitely doesn’t give you an objective truth, since the truth of the statement is entirely dependent on word-games.

    but comprehension is irrelevant to whether or not something is true.

    truth is a state of knowledge and understanding. comprehension is irrelevant to whether or not something is real and how it is so, but it is wholly relevant to whether people can know that reality in an objective manner. I don’t see how it makes sense to say you know something if you don’t comprehend it. You can label it, but that’s something else.
    Again, the discussion is not over the existence of reality that exists independent of human beings. It’s about the ability of humans to comprehend it. “there is no objective truth” doesn’t mean “there is no reality external to humans”; it makes sense only as “there’s no way for humans to perceive and comprehend external reality”, AKA “for humans, all truth is to some degree subjective, because all knowledge and language is” AKA “perfect objectivity is an illusion”. The reason the statement exists the way it does is because post-modernism is, as the name implies, a response to modernism. Which conflated “truth” (a thing of knowledge and language) and “reality” ( a thing independent of humans).

    You know what you get when you mix postmodernism with science-based medicine, don’t you?

    yes. medical care of women that doesn’t treat them like ignorant dolts who can’t be trusted to report pain or symptoms with any degree of accuracy; patient-centered medicine instead of “the expert is always right” medicine; etc.

    Modernism certainly has its problems, such as the ideas of inevitable progress and ideal observers, but these automatically imply the existence of a distinction between what is true and what we know.

    incorrect. The whole point of modernity is that modernity believes of itself that it knows objective reality; that the truth it produces is an objective reflection of reality.

    I really, really, really despise post-modernism. I still have nightmares where professors, fascinated with deconstructing the most minute detail, argue over what the author really meant when he used the word “green” to describe the eggs and ham.

    literary post-modernism doesn’t give a flying fuck about the author’s intent. You’re confused.

    While the overall material that made up the Earth has (largely) been around (in terms of subatomic particles) since the beginning of the universe, more or less as far as we can tell, the state of those particles being arranged in the form of a planet has distinctly different nature in readily described objective terms from when those particles were in the form of interstellar gasses and atoms

    nonsense. There are no “objective terms” for what a planet is or isn’t. That’s in fact one of the most obvious social constructions in science, what with us having recently lost a planet to a re-construction of that term. And even before that, the understanding of planet had to keep changing to reflect its use, since “originally” it was a terms for “stars” that moved more than other “stars”. Which had fuck-all to do with its composition. and there’s no “objective term” that distinguishes a planetoid from a planet; there are definitional ones, and definitions are leaky.
    And even beyond that. the model we use to understand what a planet is and what it isn’t is also made of human understanding, not of objective reality; hence the changing understanding of what a planet is. and what it means to call something a planet.

    In the case of language, a statement is true if and only if what it states is actually the case:it doesn’t have to be identical to reality at all.

    lolwut. if something isn’t “identical to reality”, it’s not “actually the case” either; it’s only “somewhat the case”.

    In theory the Natural Sciences should be less susceptible to and self-correcting with regard to bias due to the beliefs of the scientist.

    “less”? yup. “free from”? nope. model-based reality is how even physicists think of human ability to think about reality. And if nothing else, such models have human biases.

  158. Anthony K says

    If you are going to write bullshit like this:

    No, the post-modernist says that green eggs and ham as a metaphor for jealousy is just as valid an interpretation on the part of the reader as whatever the author’s original intent was.

    and then dismiss it when I write it back to you, simply because you know what your own intent was, I am not the person playing games.

    You’re wrong. That wasn’t bullshit; it was me correcting you. Akin to you saying “Dave says pigs can fly” and me saying, “No, Dave says when pigs can fly”. Postmodernism may be wide-ranging and general, but it really doesn’t attribute any meanings to the author; rather it says that the author’s meaning isn’t the only relevant one.

  159. Rob Grigjanis says

    M @162:

    This is where it gets fun in relation to science: it means that we don’t accept any particular theory as the absolute and complete explanation for reality, we can always hope to find something better.

    Thanks for that (also thanks to Anthony K and Jacob Schmidt and others for trying to lower the heat/light ratio a bit).

    Sorry to get a bit technical, but it reminded me of the status of renormalizability in field theory. Once was the Holy Grail, now not so much. Nonrenormalizable terms are an expression of our ignorance, and as a species, we really hate that. But it never stops us from looking, and asking.

  160. says

    @ David M.

    You must at least agree that most of the horde have a reflective bent, and a consistency of character that belongs more to the modern.

    @ scourge99

    It doesn’t really matter as much what is said about it. That last paragraph of yours is a description of the phenomenon called (after the fact), “postmodern”. That the description thereof follows such a trajectory is then not hard to follow.

  161. Ada says

    Sorry everyone — I’m a bit threadrupt. I tried to read everything, but y’all are posting so quickly.

    But I did want to respond to a couple of claims, because I’m a mathematician, and whenever people bring up post-modernism someone always, as occurred upthread, says something like:

    I objectively know that 17 is prime

    But this is not a refutation of post-modernism. Sorry, but it isn’t. And people usually respond to that with “but you can prove it mathematically.” And yet, there are two problems with that:

    (1) Any formal proof of this fact involves first assuming (without proof) several things — usually the Zermelo-Fraenkel axioms of set theory

    (2) You only talk about prime-ness because prime-ness is a facet of numbers that mathematicians have studied extensively. And in part that is because prime-ness ends up being super useful in all sorts of mathematics, but a huge part of this is also because of (a) the early culture of mathematics (most early mathematics was done without any concept of arithmetic or algebra as we have today) made number theory a major subject; and (b) once prime numbers were entrenched in the field, they were used (because they have useful properties) for important applications (like cyptosystems)

    So while (1) takes care of (I believe — but then, I’m a mathematician) any claim that “17 is true” is necessarily an objective truth, the point is also that of (2): the reason you know what a prime number is is because someone chose to define what a prime number was (and, yes, then they turned out to be super useful.) But that choice, and the choice of others to study them, was not a process free of cultural/societal influence.

  162. rrhain says

    There is more to the Sokal hoax than just that it was a bad paper that managed to get accepted. When the hoax was revealed, rather than accept that there was a bad process, admit their error, and work to make a better review process, the publishers of Social Text dug in their heels and somehow made Sokal the bad guy for having dared to show that the emperor has no clothes.

    For example, Social Text did not conduct peer review. But rather than realize that this results in bad work getting through, blamed Sokal for somehow betraying their trust. They have since put in a more stringent review process, but to blame Sokal for it is misguided.

    The criticism of post-modernism is very much akin to Myers’ criticism of evolutionary psychology: The results simply don’t mean anything. While there may be some interesting work in there somewhere, there is so much dross that the entire field is questionable. If it were just an issue of questioning assumptions and looking at the social processes that drive scientific inquiry, that would be a lovely thing. But instead, you get people going so far beyond that foundation that quite literal nonsense is put forward as if it were profound.

    The actual practice of post-modernism is to jump from effects to causes with no intervening logic or examination to see if the cause actually results in the effect. So long as one can imagine that it might be plausible, then it is accepted as legitimate. It’s a dramatic example of “wishing makes it so.”

  163. says

    @rrhain 181

    The actual practice of post-modernism is to jump from effects to causes with no intervening logic or examination to see if the cause actually results in the effect. So long as one can imagine that it might be plausible, then it is accepted as legitimate. It’s a dramatic example of “wishing makes it so.”

    As is your entire comment, I feel. What postmodernist philosophers have you actually read?

  164. Esteleth, statistically significant to p ≤ 0.001 says

    At the risk of being ridiculously recursive on this own blog, post-modernism says to modernism’s grand pronouncements of fact, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.”

    Post-modernism isn’t making grand statements about what is. Post-modernism is the nag in the back of the auditorium with their hand in the air, asking whether or not you controlled for variable x.

  165. says

    rrhain:

    The actual practice of post-modernism is to jump from effects to causes with no intervening logic or examination to see if the cause actually results in the effect. So long as one can imagine that it might be plausible, then it is accepted as legitimate. It’s a dramatic example of “wishing makes it so.”

    Wow. Even I have a better understanding of post-modernism than this ^ mess, and that’s seriously saying something.

  166. says

    I have been away from your blog for quite some time, and I must say that with this post I’m glad I’m reading again. Postmodernism seems to me just as useful a tool as scientific rationalism, and it must be admitted that both are just that: tools for humanity to use. We must constantly be aware that science arises from culture and that we, as human beings, are always subject to our prejudices. As mentioned, it is hard to discount Kuhn’s major premises.

    Assuming you can know what is really going on, what reality really is, is the death knell of skepticism. It is true, science works well, but it can be put to use in the service of inhuman ends. Postmodernism asks the deeper questions that don’t necessarily have answers but are important to ask anyway, questions that deal with the meaning of being a human being. This is why, as a humanist, it is important to espouse a pragmatic philosophy which uses both scientific and postmodern thinking to the benefit of human beings. We needn’t be like the dogmatic logical positivists, who claim to know reality as it really is, nor the anarchical postmodernists, who claim that we cannot know anything. Both espouse a view of knowledge that is divorced from human experience. Instead, it is best to see knowledge as what it is: a means of solving concrete problems in the here and now. It’s not something self-sufficing and forever out of reach. It’s not wrought from the universe with what Nietzsche lambasted as “immaculate perception.” Instead, knowledge is that information that helps us survive and have control over our physical, ecological, and social environment. Pragmatism works. Championed by William James, John Dewey, and (in a more post-modern twist) Richard Rorty, the epistemology is supported by the work of cognitive psychologists like David Geary, Howard Gardner, and Steven Pinker. The great thing about pragmatism is that one can incorporate many interpretations and methods into a coherent framework. Science, postmodernism, and even “spirituality” can come together and add something of value to our understanding of human experience.

    I much appreciate E. O. Wilson’s view of science and postmodernism. In his view, science helps to attain unity where we find disorder and postmodernism helps to deconstruct unity into disorder. Both are essential for the progress of knowledge. Old paradigms need to be taken apart so new ones can be built back up. Both science and postmodernism play an integral role in that.

  167. rrhain says

    182, @Ada: Who haven’t I read? Derrida, Foucault (yes, I know he doesn’t like that label, but in perfect post-modernistic justification, I reify him as such), Rorty, and on and on.

    184: @Caine, Fleur du mal: Then by all means, provide this “better understanding.”

  168. says

    182, @Ada: Who haven’t I read? Derrida, Foucault (yes, I know he doesn’t like that label, but in perfect post-modernistic justification, I reify him as such), Rorty, and on and on.

    I guess I just have to fundamentally disagree with you there. And I really wonder how you justify that, for example, Foucault leaps from effects to causes without any intermediate logic. Because that seems quite the opposite, to me, of what Foucault actual does.

  169. madscientist says

    I see post-modernism as being similar to religious ideas – not everything is wrong but for the most part it’s not something I’d waste my time with. I’m happy to throw it out along with ancient notions such as objective truth.

  170. cm's changeable moniker (quaint, if not charming) says

    If you’re working in base 8, 17 factors to 3 and 5 quite nicely

    “WHAT DO YOU GET IF YOU MULTIPLY SIX BY NINE”

    42, if the calculations are performed in base 13. (Where are my extra fingers?!)

  171. Esteleth, statistically significant to p ≤ 0.001 says

    The thing is, though, that you cannot look at post-modernism without looking at its context: it was a reply to modernism. Modernism, which dictated that not only was there objective truth, but that we could know it.

    Said objective truth was, all too frequently, defined by upper-class wealthy cisgendered heterosexual white men in WIERD countries. And people who dared disagree with their conclusions – especially if they were not upper-class wealthy cisgendered heterosexual white men in WIERD countries – were labelled as crazy, deluded, or otherwise not worth listening to.

  172. says

    Jadehawk @ 176 said something pretty important in understanding postmodernism, and how objective fact can be nothing like either thing.

    Explain the precise age of the earth without using arbitrary delineations for when a planet is “born”; or model-based thinking about what a planet is. (and that’s in addition to what Anthony K said about human inability to actually grok extremely large numbers)

    The idea I had in this regard is, you say the earth is “billions of years old”. I think the current estimate is 4.55 billion. Leaving out entirely that even the +/- of uncertainty on that number could encompass epochs of time that are orders of magnitude longer than the history of human-like creatures, what, exactly, is a planet? When is the exact moment you can point to, with a super time machine to go back and watch, that Earth becomes “a planet”? How do we give a duration of something that we don’t, and cannot, have a t-initial on? There is no definition of planet you can make that will give you the exact time, or even a relatively close-ish time, to when “the planet” became “the planet”. When the mantle formed? When the crust closed over? When it cleared its neighbourhood? How much clear does clear have to be in clearing its neighbourhood? Are you all really so certain that there will be no cultural element involved in answering those questions?

    So, to say that it is 4.55 billions of years old is, besides its obvious approximate value in not specifying to closer than fifty million years, not anywhere close to an objective fact. It is at best an approximation, made using a bunch of assumptions and approximations that our testing indicate are likely close to what happened. In what way is that approximation to be labeled “objective truth”? Our definitions of what a planet is are formed by our interactions with the planet we live on, we define it in ways that accommodate our own existence.

    Yes, some foolish people have used this type of questioning to do some foolish things. Some foolish people have used the “objective scientific facts” of their time to do some very foolish things, too. I would hope we could rationally see that “the fact it can be used to be foolish” is hardly an evidence for saying something is itself inherently valueless: the automobile, for instance, can be a relatively efficient transporter of humans to work environments, or it can be the platform for mailbox baseball.

    That’s the key to postmodernism as I learned it and understand it, and as I use it in my daily life to re-examine my privilege, my ways of being, my interactions with the world: that if I think something is an objective fact, then I simply haven’t yet recognized the ways in which my culture has contributed to the “objectivity” of it. I think this is valuable as a concept to scientists, who should always be tightening their models, testing the structure, looking for ways to improve the models, and that this process always starts by re-examining one’s assumptions, and if one thinks there aren’t any, recognizing this as a danger sign of poor thinking. After finding the assumptions, one can then weigh whether they are significant enough to affect results, and assess whether the model needs to be changed.

    If I had to sum up postmodernist thinking in a few simple words, I’d say, “Are you sure?”

  173. ftltachyon says

    @169:

    Place 17 pennies on the ground and try to factor the stack. I don’t care if you label the quantity as 17, 21, or 11, you can’t divide those coins into equal stacks of greater than one and less than the whole. You are playing a semantic game, but the underlying fundamental truth of the primality of the quantity represented in base 10 as 17 remains unchanged, regardless of social or semantic context.

    you can play games like that for forever!

    I’ll divide the 17 pennies into two equal stacks, with 8 and a half pennies in each (using something to break or cut one penny in half).

    So yes. Your statement did have an implied social and semantic context – that pennies are indivisible and can’t be broken in half for the purposes of the exercise. Just like the previous version of the statement had the implied social context of working base 10, not modular arithmetic, etc.

    That’s part of the the point. Seemingly objective statements often come with a whole host of implied baggage – stuff that you assume that you and your target audience will agree on without even thinking about it, but which isn’t objectively true in any particular way.

    Why would you consider a penny indivisible, why can’t you cut it in half? That’s not an ‘objective truth’ in any way! Of course you can cut a penny in half, given the right tools!

    And so on and so forth, ad infinitum.

    I mean, the “17 is prime” example is obviously trivial and there aren’t, as far as I know, any particularly useful reasons to focus super-duper analysis on unpacking all the socially constructed stuff that goes into that simple claim, other than just as a demonstration that you can. But I suppose it is useful to play along as an illustration. It’s far more important to think about this for claims that actually have social relevance, though.

  174. Jacob Schmidt says

    I don’t give a shit if you insult me, but undergraduates are not “idiots” by virtue of being undergraduates, and “idiot” isn’t a particularly nice reference either.

    Well, it’s a damn good thing that Anthony K didn’t write that then.

  175. A. R says

    I’ve always said that as long as you keep postmodernism away from my science, you can do whatever the fuck you want. Because if you heat albumin to 100 degrees centigrade in a solution of phosphate buffered saline with beta mercaptoethanol at 1 atmosphere, it’s non-covalent bonds will dissociate. No amount of argument or “alternate ways of thinking” will change that. But the question of the ethics of biowarfare is, without question a topic appropriate for postmodern thought based upon the scientific facts about bioweapons.

  176. Esteleth, statistically significant to p ≤ 0.001 says

    I am supremely peeved by the “science shouldn’t bother itself with politics” line of argument – because people who make that argument (in my experience) tend to do two things:
    (1) reveal themselves to be jerks with questionable moralilty and empathy,
    or
    (2) get offended when someone-or-another “misuses” their science/argument/technique/discovery for purposes they find offensive.

    Funny that.

  177. A. R says

    ftltachyon: If you constrict the set of viable answers to integers, as is implied by “pennies” and not “fractions of pennies” your argument is made invalid. Within a base ten number system, the numerical quantity 17 cannot be divided into an integer quantity by anything other than the quantities 1 and 17.

  178. Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

    Can we rehabilitate post-modernism, please?

    Basically, my feeling is, please do. But that means cleaning house, not just brand-improvement.

  179. A. R says

    Basically, my feeling is, please do. But that means cleaning house, not just brand-improvement.

    Exactly.

  180. davidjanes says

    @162 Will that confirms my agreement with Dennett. This is nothing but navelgazing that consumes itself in its own absurdity. I’m out to find something more useful to do, like laundry. You can worry yourself about what clean and dirty mean.

  181. says

    @A.R. 196

    But 17 can be written as the product of two other integers, neither of which is 1 or 17 like so:

    (4 + i)(4 – i) = 16 – i^2 = 16 + 1 = 17

    (Oh, you didn’t mean the Gaussian integers? Well, why are the integers considered more fundamental an integral domain for the consideration of whether a number is prime than the Gaussian integers? Is there an objective basis for that, or is it just that they were discovered first? Or a mix?)

  182. A. R says

    I am supremely peeved by the “science shouldn’t bother itself with politics” line of argument – because people who make that argument (in my experience) tend to do two things:
    (1) reveal themselves to be jerks with questionable moralilty and empathy,
    or
    (2) get offended when someone-or-another “misuses” their science/argument/technique/discovery for purposes they find offensive.

    Funny that.

    Actually, I just don’t want science to be politicized unnecessarily.

  183. Esteleth, statistically significant to p ≤ 0.001 says

    Actually, I just don’t want science to be politicized unnecessarily.

    (1) Define “unnecessar[y]” politicization.
    (2) Given that at present reality has a well-known liberal bias, please explain how we can avoid any politicization of science.

  184. rrhain says

    191, @CaitieCat: While what you say is true, the problem is that postmodernism all too often wanders off to say that the earth, then, has no age at all, which clearly isn’t true.

    Indeed, the specific number, 4.55 billion, is something that is based upon a lot of assumptions. Nevertheless, it is still true that there is a definitive point where there was no “earth” no matter what assumptions you may make about the earth and a definitive point where there was. The process of planetary accretion may not be amenable to giving one a precise, “this moment” event which defines when the planet came into being, but to pretend that there is no objectivity to the process is to ignore reality.

    Especially since the process by which that number is calculated isn’t really about things like the mantle forming, clearing its orbital path, etc. but rather about the radiometric dating of the rocks.

    All scientists understand (or should) the importance of the question of, “Are you sure?” The problem is that postmodernism will never accept “yes” as an answer, even when qualified. It then devolves into hyperskepticism.

  185. A. R says

    Ada: I’m a virologist, not a mathematics expert, so I’m going to have to defer that question to someone who can do math more complex than that needed to analyze plaque assay data.

  186. says

    Yeah, sorry, those were mostly-rhetorical kinda smart-alecky questions. All I’m saying is, speaking as a mathematician, the statement “17 is objectively a prime number” is way more complicated and far less obviously true that most people would assume.

  187. A. R says

    Esteleth @ 202: Well, science funding is pretty damn political, and then of course there are all of the attempts to force religion on science, the general “ignorance is good, science is bad” view of conservatives and some liberals, and the general issues caused by people regulating or controlling fields they have no training in whatsoever. Like any Republican who has ever sat on the House Committee on Science.

  188. says

    (And even when you say “restrict your set of possible penny combinations to the integers” it isn’t necessarily as cut and dried as it would appear. Though pragmatically of course it really is.)

  189. A. R says

    Ada: Yep. Any field of science or mathematics is far more beautifully complex than any of us could possibly imagine. This is why I love science and math.

  190. says

    OK postmodernism defenders. Who among you actually lives their lives as if “we need both order and chaos” and that we must have absolute certainty (are you sure???) rather than reasonable certainty about the world? I work in a medical clinic and we don’t need a staff postmodernist. Or do we? Lay some real world examples on us. Is there no evidence that smallpox vaccine is effective because we’re only 99.0 percent sure it works?

  191. Esteleth, statistically significant to p ≤ 0.001 says

    OK postmodernism defenders. Who among you actually lives their lives as if “we need both order and chaos” and that we must have absolute certainty (are you sure???) rather than reasonable certainty about the world? I work in a medical clinic and we don’t need a staff postmodernist. Or do we? Lay some real world examples on us. Is there no evidence that smallpox vaccine is effective because we’re only 99.0 percent sure it works?

    Firstly, I am a working scientist, and I will soon be entering nursing school. For whatever that is worth.

    Secondly, I’m not sure what exactly it is you’re arguing against here, but I don’t recognize it as post-modernism.

  192. says

    You can worry yourself about what clean and dirty mean.

    someone has to, otherwise we’d have to accept the silly and extreme cleanliness standard that exists primarily to make you buy more cleaners and that came into being as a result of needing to find a way to explain why housewives with laundry machines, vacuums, etc. still needed to be full-time housewives only…

    :-p

  193. says

    I work in a medical clinic and we don’t need a staff postmodernist.

    you also don’t need a staff modernist or staff classicist. what a nonsensical argument.

  194. says

    Is there no evidence that smallpox vaccine is effective because we’re only 99.0 percent sure it works?

    what the fuck does that have to do with post-modernism? Are you under the impression that post-modernism says there’s no such thing as evidence?

  195. A. R says

    Eh, I rather like the silly and extreme cleanliness standard. Perhaps that’s more reflective of my privilege and background than any valid scientific reason. (Hmmm, this seems oddly like a rational application of post-modernist thinking…)

  196. Esteleth, statistically significant to p ≤ 0.001 says

    Your medical clinic may not need a staff postmodernist, but it does need someone to say that maybe (to throw out a random name-with-associated-stereotypes) Mrs. Henriquez isn’t malingering – maybe she needs an echocardiogram.

  197. Joe Knapka says

    John @103:

    That’s just silly; the fact that we can’t know anything with 100% certainty does not mean that every proposed model to represent some aspect of reality is equally valid. I’m sure there’s a name for that informal fallacy, though I do not know it.

    It should be called “Asimov’s fallacy”, from his essay “The Relativity of Wrong”:

    This particular thesis was addressed to me a quarter of a century ago by John Campbell, who specialized in irritating me. He also told me that all theories are proven wrong in time.
    My answer to him was, “John, when people thought the Earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the Earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the Earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the Earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”

  198. says

    All scientists understand (or should) the importance of the question of, “Are you sure?” The problem is that postmodernism will never accept “yes” as an answer, even when qualified.

    one would hope that science would never accept “yes” as an answer either. That’s the whole point of provisionally accepting answers: the part where you’re not actually sure.

  199. says

    OK, guys, you really need some help here. For example:

    heat albumin to 100 degrees centigrade in a solution of phosphate buffered saline with beta mercaptoethanol at 1 atmosphere, it’s non-covalent bonds will dissociate.

    That’s true. That’s a fact. Proteins have measurable, quantifiable properties. There are some wacky postmodernists out there who’ll try to argue with that, but most won’t. Instead, they’ll ask you,

    What does it mean? What is the context? What is the purpose of dissociating non-covalent bonds in that molecule? What is the framework of knowledge in which that fits?

    Most scientists are comfortable with the distinction between data and information (I think). You’ve plopped out a datum. Fine. Now explain why.

    I get this all the time with students. You can give them a recipe to follow out of a lab cookbook, and they can follow it and it works fine, most of the time. When it doesn’t, they’re lost, because they don’t understand the mechanism, the theory, the whole big background of solutes and solvents, dissociation constants, the interactions between salts and pH and temperature, that whole massive edifice of scientific knowledge behind your simple statement that you take completely for granted.

    That’s postmodernism. Wake up and notice all your assumptions.

    If you’re a good scientist, you’re practicing postmodernism all the time.

  200. Esteleth, statistically significant to p ≤ 0.001 says

    Science doesn’t accept “yes.”

    Science does accepts “the evidence indicates x, with statistical significance to p ≤ 0.05.”

    Those really are not the same thing.

    At some point, take a peek at how many scientific laws there are versus how many theories there are – there are (to my knowledge) no cogent and even halfway supported alternatives to atomic theory.

    And yet it is still “atomic theory”.

    Because disproving evidence could theoretically be found tomorrow. That is unlikely, to be sure – there’s a lot of evidence supporting atomic theory – but it could happen.

  201. cm's changeable moniker (quaint, if not charming) says

    Ada:

    (4 + i)(4 – i)

    That was beautiful.

    (But it should really have been pointed at #2!)

    Too late now, I guess. :-)

  202. says

    The value of postmodernism in conservative cultures like Austria and Germany is especially clear to me; because you always need someone to keep asking annoying questions (especially the “yeah but why?”) kind) in a culture where the standard response to everything is:
    “Das haben wir schon immer so gemacht!”
    “Das haben wir noch nie gemacht!”
    “Da könnte ja jeder kommen.”

  203. A. R says

    PZ: Well, if that’s how we’re going to define postmodernism, I’m on board. Because understanding the theory behind the fact is, after all, the difference between a scientist and a technician.

  204. Rob Grigjanis says

    Joe Knapa @216: Asimov wrote:

    But if you think that thinking the Earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the Earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together

    If Campbell thought that, shame on him. Any evidence he did? Does ‘Asimov’s fallacy’ have anything to do with assuming facts not in evidence?

  205. says

    Bruno Latour wrote “Science is social all the way down”. Latour is a postmodern figure of some significance. But when it’s pointed out that this view is present in many versions of postmodernism people become angry and, above, obscene. People have been arguing here for the value of postmodernism in the world. In the clinic where I work we DO need staff modernists, who can use reason to diagnoses medical problems, including testing patients for somatic factors.

  206. says

    Some years back, I was asked to give a lecture to a postmodernism class from the perspective of the philosophy of science. Although I have long said that I don’t know what postmodernism is but whatever it is I’m for what was pre-postmodernism (a view a friend immediately dubbed “preposterism”), I thought long and hard about this, and came up with the realisation that postmodern concerns are very similar, in some cases identical, to those of the philosophy of science, like theory-relativity of observation and categorisation, incommensurability of language, the conceptual nature of data, and so on. In the end I gave a very positive account of the shared concerns between the two approaches.

    Recently I note that philosophy of science is employing many postmodernist sources as inspiration for evaluating scientific activities, in part via such accounts as Collins and Pinch’s The Golem or Shapin and Scheffer’s Leviathan and the Air Pump, etc.

    Oh, and Mayerz is a postmodernist!

  207. consciousness razor says

    rrhain, #203:

    Indeed, the specific number, 4.55 billion, is something that is based upon a lot of assumptions. Nevertheless, it is still true that there is a definitive point where there was no “earth” no matter what assumptions you may make about the earth and a definitive point where there was. The process of planetary accretion may not be amenable to giving one a precise, “this moment” event which defines when the planet came into being, but to pretend that there is no objectivity to the process is to ignore reality.

    As mentioned before, we could define the “Earth,” with some help from conservation laws, as all of the particles constituting this planet right now (from where I’m sitting), particles which existed since the Big Bang. So on those grounds, you might want to say the age is “13.798 ± 0.037 billion years.” That implies a perfectly legitimate set of assumptions, which you’re simply disregarding or ignoring — as nonexistent? You appear to be assuming this fact we decided was worth talking about (the age of the Earth) will need to be useful in some very specific way, to describe or explain or justify some specific set of phenomena to ourselves. Which ones? And they’re supposed to be useful to whom, for what? Useful to someone talking about processes like planetary formation, abiogenesis, etc.? Useful to another person, talking about something else?

    You could say the same about the alternative approximation I gave, since we do not know at the moment whether the BB is the very “beginning” of existence itself, thus it’s not even certain that drawing a line at that time is warranted either, and it’s not certain what meaning it ought to have even if we could agree on it. But it might help sometimes if we ask ourselves what use that fact is supposed to serve. Does it serve the agenda of certain cosmologists who have their own pet theories about cosmogenesis, at the expense of others? What little tidbits of information do we think people ought to understand, when we’re talking about the age of the Earth? Quite a few things, I’d say. Creationists come to mind, and this line of questioning raises exactly the kinds of issues they might well be confused about. They might believe atheists must have a very specific set of views on all of such points (in contrast to theirs), along with some very high degree of certainty about them, when that need not be the case at all.

    And what always, invariably, comes up in these discussions is that cranks, pseudoscientists, theologians, etc., might somehow be able to barge in with their favorite brand of nonsense to ruin the party. Whose party is it? Why would having this conversation be the problem itself?

    ———

    A.R., #208:

    Ada: Yep. Any field of science or mathematics is far more beautifully complex than any of us could possibly imagine. This is why I love science and math.

    And the humanities and human societies are pretty fucking complicated too. I’m sure you’ve noticed.

    I’ll spare you the overblown panegyrics about how lovely they are, since I don’t often think that. But maybe we should temper some of our broader statements about the humanities, and intellectual currents in them, if we don’t actually know much about the subject. Maybe ignorance isn’t such a great starting point?

  208. says

    In the clinic where I work we DO need staff modernists, who can use reason to diagnoses medical problems, including testing patients for somatic factors.

    if that’s your definition of a “staff modernist”, then you need a staff post-modernist, too, since those would be the people that’ll make sure that even if all the experts in your clinic say “treatment X is best”, the person who has the last word is still the patient, even if they chose something other than X.

  209. consciousness razor says

    myself:

    As mentioned before, we could define the “Earth,” with some help from conservation laws, as all of the particles constituting this planet right now (from where I’m sitting), particles which existed since the Big Bang.

    Err, I didn’t mean to say the particles themselves, because strictly speaking those weren’t present in the very earliest known stages of inflation/BB. But the point is that necessary ingredients and conditions and laws were (however they might be defined).

  210. Joe Knapka says

    @233 – I was just suggesting a name for the fallacy John pointed out, since I could neither remember what is was called nor find a name for it on the interwebs. Nothing to argue about here.

  211. A. R says

    consciousness razor: I don’t believe I’ve made any statements about the humanities, I’ve never had enough of an interest in more than very specific parts of the field to develop a broad-based opinion. Although there are many, many scientists who have much less than favourable conceptions of the humanities, I’m not one of them.

  212. consciousness razor says

    consciousness razor: I don’t believe I’ve made any statements about the humanities, I’ve never had enough of an interest in more than very specific parts of the field to develop a broad-based opinion. Although there are many, many scientists who have much less than favourable conceptions of the humanities, I’m not one of them.

    Then I might have gotten the wrong impression. Mine was meant as a general comment anyway, not just about you or directed to you.

    Then again, this is also a curious statement:

    I’ve always said that as long as you keep postmodernism away from my science, you can do whatever the fuck you want.

    Why do you not give a fuck about what it does to “my humanities”? (I really think I should say “our humanities” there, but I’m just trying to parallel your statement.) What puts your science so far ahead of your concerns that nothing else even gets mentioned?

  213. Rob Grigjanis says

    CR @228: Well, hadrons were around from about 10^-6 seconds onwards, so we’ll cut some slack. This time!

  214. says

    scottruplin:

    In the clinic where I work we DO need staff modernists, who can use reason to diagnoses medical problems, including testing patients for somatic factors.

    That’s fine. I think, though, that along with people to do that, you also need people who will advocate for patients, keeping in mind the various implicit biases carried by staff modernists. There’s no need to to go either/or here. There’s room for both.

  215. consciousness razor says

    Well, hadrons were around from about 10^-6 seconds onwards, so we’ll cut some slack. This time!

    I appreciate your forbearance. If I were not cut slack, I don’t know what I would do. I think I’m tense enough as it is.

    But 10^-6 seconds on from what, and why does that matter? Answer the question!

  216. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    That’s postmodernism. Wake up and notice all your assumptions.

    Eloquently written, Squidly OL!
     
    The shift in scientific paradigms often flows from brain meat pretending/imagining that assumptions are false, and on the basis of a different set of premises, proposing hypotheses that were not possible under the former set. Many of the best scientists do lots of thinking before gathering any data at all. As a habit, challenging assumptions is both a fun and badass way to proceed with discovering cool shit.
     
    Pomo haters: what ever happened to having fun with ideas?

  217. A. R says

    CR@231:

    Why do you not give a fuck about what it does to “my humanities”? (I really think I should say “our humanities” there, but I’m just trying to parallel your statement.) What puts your science so far ahead of your concerns that nothing else even gets mentioned?

    I suppose it’s a case of direct personal interest. I’m a scientist, so it’s the first thing that comes to mind. Now, that’s not saying that I don’t love Shakespeare or consider the societal implications of the work I do. (By the way, is it just me, or does “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” seem particularly appropriate for this thread?)

  218. says

    Caine and Jadehawk –

    Both humanism and feminism serve us well in integrating a less top down and more patient centered approach to mental health servces. The corporate shills above me are the only ones who don’t appreciate it. At the practice level we don’t need radical subjectivists, or gadflies always pointing out that there’s another subjective alternative when the research is clear about therapeutic alliance being of primary importance. The patient perception of therapist alliance is the main factor in creating a positive outcome in therapy. Obviously that’s different for things like emergency medicine.

    “if that’s your definition of a “staff modernist”, then you need a staff post-modernist, too, since those would be the people that’ll make sure that even if all the experts in your clinic say “treatment X is best”, the person who has the last word is still the patient, even if they chose something other than X.”

    I disgree. As noted, feminism and humanistic approaches and insights serve this social worker just fine. No Derrida, Latour, Foucault, or Jacques Lacan needed. Just compassion and reason.

  219. says

    As noted, feminism and humanistic approaches and insights serve this social worker just fine.

    and you think feminism, especially intersectional feminism, is not post-modernist? Teh Lol

    Also, you may not need “radical subjectivists”, but neither do you need “radical objectivists”, that being the people who did medicine the old-fashioned way of the “the doctor is always right” variety that ignored patient opinions on what’s best for themselves. Stop shifting the goalposts back and forth depending on whether you want to talk about what a “professional modernist” or a “professional post-modernist” is.

  220. says

    Awesome post.

    For those really interested in exploring and understanding PM, I recommend going back to the Ur-text of postmodernism, Derrida’s “Of Grammatology”. Granted, it does require considerable pre-requisite knowledge of philosophy, and the text can be a struggle at times, but it rewards effort more than any other reading project (and you should think of it as a project; not just “another book” to read) I can think of.

    Also, in the best tradition of PM deconstructive analysis, there is Professor Judith Butler on feminism: Gender Trouble. I would be surprised if JB weren’t a favorite of PZ Myers.

    (Now going back to read the thread. Apologizing in advance for any repetition of what someone said above.)

  221. demonhauntedworld says

    The thing is, though, that you cannot look at post-modernism without looking at its context: it was a reply to modernism. Modernism, which dictated that not only was there objective truth, but that we could know it.

    Said objective truth was, all too frequently, defined by upper-class wealthy cisgendered heterosexual white men in WIERD countries. And people who dared disagree with their conclusions – especially if they were not upper-class wealthy cisgendered heterosexual white men in WIERD countries – were labelled as crazy, deluded, or otherwise not worth listening to.

    And a lot of the garbage that came out of postmodernism came out of an essentialist point of view that BECAUSE someone was NOT a wealthy cisgendered heterosexual white male that they had special access to a form of knowledge that no wealthy cisgendered heterosexual white male could ever discover – even if that knowledge had nothing to do with any of those attributes…like fluid dynamics. Gross and Levitt’s book provides numerous examples of this, including some howlers from feminist algebra and afrocentric science.

  222. Rob Grigjanis says

    A. R @236:

    By the way, is it just me, or does “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” seem particularly appropriate for this thread?

    Funny, I was thinking more along the lines of

    A little learning is a dangerous thing;
    drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
    there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
    and drinking largely sobers us again.

    Alexander Pope

  223. says

    No Derrida, Latour, Foucault, or Jacques Lacan needed.

    another goalpost shift. By that definition, you don’t need modernists either, since I doubt your clinic needs Wallerstein, Giddens, Freud, or Gramsci either.

  224. firstapproximation says

    Physics or Stamp Collecting,

    If you’re working in base 8, 17 factors to 3 and 5 quite nicely.

    It’s clear that Nick Gotts (or Knock Goats, or Nock Gotts or whatever he’s being called this week) is talking about the number seventeen and not the symbol ’17’. You can remove all ambiguity by listing explicitly things like that you’re working in base ten, what arithmetic axioms you accept*, what you mean by prime, etc. But that’s tedious and unnecessary since most people should get what he meant.

    * Irrelevent aside: for example, the Peano axioms. There would be a problem that you’re potentially working in an inconsistent system since cannot prove the consistency of the Peano axioms from the Peano axioms. So you’d list the consistency as an assumption and accept that you’re potentially wrong. If you accept a stronger system, like ZFC, you can prove the consistency of the Peano axioms, but that then leads to the issue of the consistency of ZFC. You’d have to list the assumption that ZFC is consistent, which is something many (most?) mathematicians suspect.

    John Horstman is right on about this being true within a specifically constructed mathematical framework.

    Right, it is then objectively true that within a certain mathematical framework seventeen is a prime.

    PZ,

    That’s postmodernism. Wake up and notice all your assumptions.

    That’s good advice and should be followed, but that was being said far before postmodernism came around. That description of postmodernism doesn’t match up with how I see the term used in practice. Postmodernism seems to be far more than just that. You can take note of your assumptions, engage in meta-analysis, realize that the customs of your tribe are not the laws of nature, etc. without accepting all the baggage of postmodernism.

  225. says

    An interesting thread.

    I really mean no offense to any of the commenters, but, seriously, the thread could have ended with John Horstman’s post @103. At least PZ did step in to try to undo some of the damage.

    This is probably wasted effort (which is why I am not going to put too much into it), but for Nick Gotts and all the other essentialists (platonists) on the thread: The belief that one possesses “objective truths” (which is to claim an absolute if it means anything) is essentialist, which is to say platonist, which is to say religious. Humean Empiricism is not the last word in the epistemology of science. It is, itself, a synthetic product of what Derrida called the era of logo-centric metaphysics, which embraces the pre-Socratics, Classical Antiquity, the Scholastics, the Enlightenment, almost literally everything through modernism, with the exceptions of PM’s precursors, whom Derrida finds in Nietzsche (as psychologist and epistemologist), Husserl, Saussure (to a lesser extent), Heidegger, et al.

    I second PZ’s recommendation of Kuhn. Also recommend Paul Feyerabend. PM is not anti-science. It is just interested in the social context of how science is done– perhaps more to the point, what kind of science is done/ do we “choose” to do.

  226. says

    I agree with PZ and many of the commentaries above. The value of postmodern science is that it provides a powerful refutation of the authoritarianism and elitism inherent in traditional science, as well as an empirical basis for a democratic approach to scientific work. As Niels Bohr noted, “a complete elucidation of one and the same object may require diverse points of view which defy a unique description” — this is quite simply a fact about the world, much as the self-proclaimed empiricists of modernist science might prefer to deny it.

    Good advice for me, and many I am sure.

  227. firstapproximation says

    which is to say platonist, which is to say religious

    Nonsense. While platonism did influence Christian thought greatly, it’s not the case that if you accept that abstract object exist “out there” you have to be religious.
    _ _ _

    Chomsky wrote a good critique of postmodernism. I encourage people here to read it.

    I’ve dipped into what they write out of curiosity, but not very far, for reasons already mentioned: what I find is extremely pretentious, but on examination, a lot of it is simply illiterate, based on extraordinary misreading of texts that I know well (sometimes, that I have written), argument that is appalling in its casual lack of elementary self-criticism, lots of statements that are trivial (though dressed up in complicated verbiage) or false; and a good deal of plain gibberish.

  228. Cyranothe2nd, there's no such thing as a moderate ally says

    No Derrida, Latour, Foucault, or Jacques Lacan needed.

    So your clinic administration is not concerned with, for example, the authority of doctors as unquestioned arbiters of health? Or the use of authority in social interactions, period? Or how the layout of physical space promotes ideologies? I find that very strange, as these seem to be topics my pre-med and nursing students discuss in their essays….

  229. Cyranothe2nd, there's no such thing as a moderate ally says

    firstapproximation,

    I’m sorry but Chomsky is wrong. Yes, there are some post-modern texts that are complete nonsense. But there are also wonderful texts, like Paulo Fiere’s ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed,’ which has complete revolutionized the field of college teaching. I believe he’s on the money when he says that many of the great post-modernists were poor writers, but that does not make their ideas nonsense (or even, necessarily, unintelligible. One must simply try harder.) But to dismiss an entire field because the writing is hard to grok? That’s ludicrous.

    (I also find Kant extremely hard to read. This doesn’t mean that his work isn’t brilliant or foundational.)

  230. says

    @1stapprox: Nonsense right back atcha, my good sir.

    You need to read up on platonism. What you describe is simply a belief in a noumenal reality. Anyone not a radical idealist believes that there must be some kind of noumenal reality that is the “cause” of the phenomena of human experience. In other words, as good, low-risk gamblers– and this includes post-modernists– we assume the things (the world) to actually exist in some “real” way. (Unless, of course, one is a Copenhagenist– there is no “deep reality”–which position is really philosophically incoherent.)

    Platonism supposes a realm of perfect forms (the real as the absolute) of which the objects of everyday experience, in their particularity and variability, are but imperfect and degenerate avatars. Platonism is a belief in a transcendent reality, and any belief in transcendence is, in some real sense, a religious belief. And no serious philosopher I have ever heard of has argued that platonism is not essentially a form of religious belief.

    Yes, I know that neo-platonists like Spinoza, et al, have claimed to be atheistic. That really just boils down to them not believing in the God of Christianity and of the medieval scholastics. Any version of a demon-haunted world, no matter how fancifully metaphysical, is bound to be infected with some form of transcendent religious belief.

    You are way off the mark on the Chomsky, as well. Chomsky is not referring so much to the semiotics and linguistic philosophy of Jacques Derrida, as to the more recent (over the last twenty to thirty years, more-or-less) excrescence of jargon-laden academic prose in the area of so-called Critical Theory. (Not all the recent work is bad. Much of it concerns race and queer and gender theory: areas of interest that Chomsky is known for much less than for his anti-capitalist, anti-statist, anarchistic views, with which, incidentally, I mostly agree. But I think the great man could himself do with a liberal dose of Judith Butler. He might not then be so casually dismissive of the vile misogyny and homo-phobia that is so prevalent in the muslim world.)

    Anyway, as others defending PM above have noted, these arguments tend to be fruitless. PM haters are rather like Defoe’s English yeomen who didn’t know if the Pope in Rome was a man or a horse or whatever, they only knew they hated Popery.

    Have fun, y’all. I’m out.

  231. Nick Gotts says

    Jacob Schmidt@143,

    1) You’ve yet to substantiate this in any way. Like, at all. You’ve merely asserted it. I’ve shown that a false idea can be more useful than another false idea (ideality vs. rainbows and butterflies), so I really don’t see where the fuck you get this from.

    If there’s no objective truth, then it can’t be objectively true that one false idea is more useful than another. Truth-claims about utility are still truth-claims.

    2) Go back to the offending paragraph and change “since” to “if”: “You claimed that each were equally valid [if] neither was objectively true.” Mea culpa on poor editing.

    As I’ve been saying I said all along.

  232. Physics or Stamp Collecting says

    firstapproximation @244: Ada’s already answered your argument in comments 180, 200, and 205.

  233. Nick Gotts says

    What you call a bed, and more importantly what you do not, most certainly is culturally constructed. So you’re close to understanding the issue, at least. – Anthony K.@144

    I can do without your condescension, thanks all the same. I understand the issue perfectly well: of course concepts are culturally constructed; I simply disagree with you: I am arguing that this does not imply that there is no objective truth. We do not construct our concepts arbitrarily (some conceptual schemas fit reality better than others), and once we have constructed them, we don’t get to choose whether the claims that can be formulated in terms of those concepts are true or false.

    Marcus Ranum@145

    @129 Nick Gotts

    Then how do you think you know that?

    That we don’t know? I could have formulated that as “I am unconvinced that…” if you prefer.

    Why should I or anyone else be interested in whether you’re convinced or not, if you’re not actually making a truth-claim ?(other than about your own internal state – and presumably you are still claiming it’s objectively true that you are unconvinced – people are not invariably reliable witnesses as to their states of belief, even when they are sincere – they may fool themselves due to prior commitment to some philosophical position, for example). You’re not that fascinating.

  234. Nick Gotts says

    I would think even the least self-aware modernists would say that science progresses towards better, more accurate models of the truth we cannot know. – Anthony K.@146

    It depends whether you take “know” to mean “be justifiably absolutely certain, beyond even the most remote possibility of error”, or whether you take it in something like its ordinary sense – you know, the one we use every day in multitudes of contexts. In the latter sense, we do know that 17 is prime, that the earth is billions of years old, and that human activities are affecting the climate.

  235. Nick Gotts says

    If you’re working in base 8, 17 factors to 3 and 5 quite nicely. John Horstman is right on about this being true within a specifically constructed mathematical framework. – Physics or Stamp Collecting@139

    Yes, but I wasn’t, and both you and John Horstman knew I wasn’t: you both knew perfectly well what I was talking about, and pretending otherwise is pretty pointless. At best, it’s an elementary confusion between particular linguistic conventions and the concepts they refer to; at worst, it’s just trolling.

  236. Physics or Stamp Collecting says

    Nick Gotts @255: Ada’s already answered your argument in comments 180, 200, and 205.

  237. Nick Gotts says

    “Actually the case” is, because language isn’t identical to reality, always a matter of degree or “close enough-ness”. – A can help you with that@159

    No, it isn’t. It’s an elementary confusion to think that language has to be identical to reality in order to (sometimes) describe it exactly, because it does not have to describe it completely in order to be exact.

  238. Nick Gotts says

    Physics or Stamp collecting@256,

    No, xe didn’t – or at least, the answer was beside the point. “Prime”, applied to numbers, has a primary meaning, which is “cannot be factorized into positive integers greater than 1″. 17 was prime in this primary sense before there were any mathematicians, or any organisms, and certainly long before the Zermelo-Frankel axioms were formulated. They were formulated so as to provide an axiom system in which objective facts such as “17 is prime” could be proved.

  239. M can help you with that. says

    Nick Gotts @ 257:

    It’s an elementary confusion to think that language has to be identical to reality in order to (sometimes) describe it exactly, because it does not have to describe it completely in order to be exact.

    How, exactly, is this supposed to work? An incomplete, yet exact, representation? Have there been some complete revolutions in the philosophy of language and semiotics that nobody in the field is aware of?

  240. firstapproximation says

    Cyranothe2nd, there’s no such thing as a moderate ally,

    I believe he’s on the money when he says that many of the great post-modernists were poor writers, but that does not make their ideas nonsense (or even, necessarily, unintelligible. One must simply try harder.) But to dismiss an entire field because the writing is hard to grok? That’s ludicrous.

    That’s not what was done. Read the entire thing. If you don’t want to, here is a relevant quote:

    There are lots of things I don’t understand — say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat’s last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I’m interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. — even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest — write things that I also don’t understand, but (1) and (2) don’t hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven’t a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of “theory” that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) … I won’t spell it out

    I will say that, for the most part, the defenders of post modernism on this thread have been quite intelligible. However, what they’ve pointed to as valuable contributions of post modernism have been triviailly true statements that are by no means original to post modernism.
    _ _ _

    williamberry,

    Platonism is a belief in a transcendent reality, and any belief in transcendence is, in some real sense, a religious belief.

    Most people seem to take a platonic view about the natural numbers, believing they exist independent of reality or of our minds. This view could be right or it wrong, but it seems to me that you would claim that this is a religious belief. Religious belief in my mind means a supernatural or spiritual belief. Do you believe a platonic view of the natural numbers is a supernatural or spiritual belief? If not, then you’re using ‘religious belief’ to mean something very different than I’m used to seeing and we’re just arguing semantics.

    For the record, I’m not a platonist.

    . Chomsky is not referring so much to the semiotics and linguistic philosophy of Jacques Derrida

    The Derrida is explicitly mentioned:

    So take Derrida, one of the grand old men. I thought I ought to at least be able to understand his Grammatology, so tried to read it. I could make out some of it, for example, the critical analysis of classical texts that I knew very well and had written about years before. I found the scholarship appalling, based on pathetic misreading; and the argument, such as it was, failed to come close to the kinds of standards I’ve been familiar with since virtually childhood.

  241. says

    ” . . . 17 was prime in this primary sense before there were any mathematicians, or any organisms, and certainly long before the Zermelo-Frankel axioms were formulated . . .”

    WTF?! I can’t help it; this is just too rich. There were numbers before there was even intelligence? (Allowing, of course, for the possibility that they might have previously been invented by a non-human intelligence.)

    You guys should save your efforts arguing with Nick Gotts. A good argument won’t make a dent in a platonic idealist. Nor, for that matter, an impenetrable blockhead.

    Well, some famous mathematicians— Steve Smale, Mitch Feigenbaum, e.g.— have believed that numbers have a platonic existence somewhere “out there” (the mind of God, maybe?), and they are just as hard-headed as NG wrt to this transcendent idea, so that should give you some idea of what you are up against.

    Essentialism, transcendance, religion, are burned in deep.

  242. ibyea says

    I feel like we are all arguing over nothing and that the ambiguity of language is making is misunderstand one antoher. For example, Jadehawk above defined the difference between objective reality and objective truth. Except a lot of people is thinking that objective truth means objective reality, and so people are confused that others are saying there is no objective truth.

  243. firstapproximation says

    Physics or Stamp Collecting,

    Ada’s already answered your argument in comments 180, 200, and 205.

    200 was just a joke about Gaussian primes and smart-alecky questions. 205 was an apology for the smart-alecky questions with an explanation that ’17 is a prime’ is more complicated than most people realize (which I agree with). These two comments don’t really answer my argument.
    _ _ _

    Ada,

    Any formal proof of this fact involves first assuming (without proof) several things — usually the Zermelo-Fraenkel axioms of set theory

    So it’s objectively true that, under ZF, 17 is a prime?

    the reason you know what a prime number is is because someone chose to define what a prime number was (and, yes, then they turned out to be super useful.) But that choice, and the choice of others to study them, was not a process free of cultural/societal influence.

    But 17 would be a prime regardless of whether humans studied number theory or not. Do you agree?

  244. ibyea says

    Heck, when Jadehawk explained what objective reality and objective truth meant in the philosophical context, that is when I stopped being quiet confused on the conversation. Because I am more of a science guy, for me, truth=objective reality, so when people argue there is no objective truth, I am confused, when I shouldn’t be because it turns out it truth is more about language and knowledge.

  245. firstapproximation says

    WTF?! I can’t help it; this is just too rich. There were numbers before there was even intelligence? (Allowing, of course, for the possibility that they might have previously been invented by a non-human intelligence.)

    You guys should save your efforts arguing with Nick Gotts. A good argument won’t make a dent in a platonic idealist. Nor, for that matter, an impenetrable blockhead.

    You know, instead of mocking you can make substantive arguments against the view that numbers exist independent of the mind.

    Well, some famous mathematicians— Steve Smale, Mitch Feigenbaum, e.g.— have believed that numbers have a platonic existence somewhere “out there”

    Also, the mathematician/physicist Roger Penrose, who has done important work with Stephen Hawking on black holes. He also describes himself as non-religious.

  246. says

    @1st approximation: Yes, I read the bit about Derrida in the Chomsky thing. I am sure that Chomsky is an expert on Saussure (it is not, as he says, “de” Saussure, unless the first name is given), but on Rousseau? Husserl? Heidegger? Nothing I have read about Chomsky (and that is a good deal, since I consider myself a Chomskyite, more-or-less) would lead me to believe that he is qualified to evaluate Derrida’s scholarship in these areas. One of Chomsky’s problems is that he is a relatively humorless individual (he is serious as well, but they are not the same thing) and he, like many others, completely misses the ludic quality of Derrida’s thought.

    And It is simply absurd to say that Derrida is impossible to understand or to explain. It takes work that Chomsky says outright he doesn’t have the time or inclination to put in. And that’s a shame.

    There are a lot of smart people who agree with Chomsky on this and a lot of smart people who don’t. How is citing him supposed to be dispositive here? As some kind of argument from authority, perhaps?

    You are right that a lot of people believe in a platonic view of the “natural” numbers (I scare-quote just to be clear I am alert to the possibility of the platonism being slipped in through the back door of “naturalism”). And in answer to your question: Yes, I do believe the concept is essentially (no pun intended) religious, because it is a belief in transcendence, which is, indeed, a version of the supernatural. Don’t you realize that some of these platonists do, in fact, believe in God, or, at least, have mystical ideas about the nature of reality? Think of Roger Penrose bizarre bull-shit, or John Wheeler’s “It from Bit”.

    We can’t say that these ideas are false; we can be atheists, but we can’t prove that God doesn’t exist. But we don’t really have a “right” to believe in these things any more than we have a right to believe in any other kind of woo.

    Assume the privilege of believing if you wish.

    As for me, I’ll pass.

  247. Nick Gotts says

    jadehawk@176,

    Explain the precise age of the earth without using arbitrary delineations for when a planet is “born”; or model-based thinking about what a planet is.,/blockquote>

    I don’t need to in order for “the earth is billions of years old” to be objectively true, because it was certainly in existence more than 2 billion years ago, hence it is “billions of years old”.

    if objective truth is impossible for people it still doesn’t follow that some views aren’t more biased than others. Just because you can’t be 100% right doesn’t actually mean you can’t be 50% right vs. 10% right.

    Yes, it does because saying that one person is more biased than another is still a truth-claim.

    vulgar Popperians often trot out the notion that science only disproves, but of course if you disprove A, you inevitably prove ~A.

    “not A” is not a real property of anything though, it’s a linguistic device. “not A” is “everything or anything, except A”, which tells you extremely little about the objective reality of that thing that isn’t A. And it definitely doesn’t give you an objective truth, since the truth of the statement is entirely dependent on word-games.

    So, you’re claiming that “It is not true that the earth is less than 10,000 years old” is not an objective truth. “Were you there?”

    truth is a state of knowledge and understanding.

    No, it most definitely is not. This seems to be the fundamental postmodernist confusion. Truth is a property of actual or potential claims or assertions about reality. It can be proved that there are mathematical truths we can never know – although of course, we can’t know what those truths are. There are also vast numbers of mundane truths about everyday reality we will never know, such as whether the number of earthworms in my garden right now exceeds the number of berries on the tree I see outside.

    The whole point of modernity is that modernity believes of itself that it knows objective reality

    Incorrect: it believes no such thing. (Actually, “modernity” is not a subject, hence not capable of believing anything, but I take it you’re being metaphorical here.) If modernists had thought that, clearly they would have seen science and mathematics as pointless, as they would have believed they already knew everything.

    lolwut. if something isn’t “identical to reality”, it’s not “actually the case” either; it’s only “somewhat the case”.

    You’re simply confused here, between a description being exact, and being complete. “I am a mammal” is an exact and objectively true statement, but not a complete description of me.

  248. firstapproximation says

    williamberry,

    How is citing him supposed to be dispositive here? As some kind of argument from authority, perhaps?

    No. I provided the link because it voices many of my objections to postmodernism better than I can.

    Yes, I do believe the concept is essentially (no pun intended) religious, because it is a belief in transcendence, which is, indeed, a version of the supernatural.

    So, according to you, a platonic view of the natural numbers is in the same category as the belief in a God that intervenes regularly in human affairs?

    Don’t you realize that some of these platonists do, in fact, believe in God, or, at least, have mystical ideas about the nature of reality?

    Of course. That doesn’t mean that all of them are religious.

    Roger Penrose bizarre bull-shit,

    What exactly are you referring to?

  249. Nick Gotts says

    Science doesn’t accept “yes.” – Esteleth@219

    But it does. It accepts that the earth is billions of years old, and that human activities are changing the climate, for example. It accepts that lions and tigers can interbreed, that nuclear fusion is occurring in the sun, that oaks grow from acorns, that hydrogen and oxygen can combine to form water…

  250. Nick Gotts says

    PZ: Well, if that’s how we’re going to define postmodernism, I’m on board. – A.R@222

    Me too: but it seems to have very little to do with postmodernism as exemplified in the quote from Mano Singham, or the claims of most of the pro-pomo commenters here.

  251. says

    Just one more comment, and I’ll shut up.

    Really, where have we got to here? Think of religion and religious skepticism for a moment. What do we, as skeptics, say when it comes to assertions of the existence of God? We say: “Prove it”.

    I have been reading this blog for ages (I seldom comment anywhere, because on the blogs I like to read– Crooked Timber, Language Log, Pharyngula, many others– I generally find my views more-or-less well-represented) and I am pretty sure that this issue of belief (in God, in a young earth, creation, demons, magic, in a word transcendance) is a central theme, if not THE central theme. It is a “free thought blog”, after all.

    These arguments about the nature of the noumenal are exactly like those about religion. For centuries philosophers have debated the issue of noumenality, and nowadays, it seems, mostly scientists and mathematicians are the only ones who still argue that it has a certain nature and that they can make predications of fact about the aspect of that nature, that noumenal reality. Almost no other kind of modern (post-modern?) intellectual thinks this. If you want to assert something factual about a presumed reality that underlies the phenomena of perception, then– f**king prove it! The onus is on you.

    We have no unequivocal evidence for the existence of God, demons, magic, platonic natural numbers, or any other kind of transcendent idea or entity. Again, if you believe any of these, prove it. Brilliant thinkers for centuries before you have tried and failed.

    On a more personal note, I want to make one other observation. I am very uncomfortable with the world. It is very strange. Experience is strange, human existence is strange, that there is something rather than nothing is strange. Who, in the darkness of a sleepless night, has never wondered what “it” is all about? (Remember the insomniac, dyslexic agnostic who lay awake nights wondering if there really was a dog?). Might there not be something transcendent beyond our powers of perception and conception?

    Perhaps so. But we can’t know what it is. We can only explore surfaces. We learn something new, we think we are reaching something real, and all we can touch is just some new surface.

    Not that we won’t find the Theory of Everything, or, as Hawking says, that we might not finally know the “mind of God” (a metaphor, for the record). We haven’t done so yet.

    All we can do is keep on searching.

    And we really should not just be making shit up.

    This has been fun. I apologize if I offended anyone. Now I have to get back to “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union! ‘Night, all.

  252. firstapproximation says

    ibyea,

    I feel like we are all arguing over nothing and that the ambiguity of language is making is misunderstand one antoher.

    I don’t think we’re arguing over nothing, but the ambiguity of language is likely causing some confusion, which is a problem that frequently arises in these types of discussions.

    Except a lot of people is thinking that objective truth means objective reality, and so people are confused that others are saying there is no objective truth.

    Yeah, to me (and I suspect a lot of other people) ‘truth’ tends to mean something close to Nick Gott’s description @ 268. It’s okay if you want to give a common word a technical definition that differs from the popular meaning. It’s done in math and science all the time and is useful when there’s no precise word for a concept you’re studying. However, when discussing things with people outside your field it should be explained you’re using the the word in a different sense than what they’re used to.

  253. Nick Gotts says

    This is probably wasted effort (which is why I am not going to put too much into it), but for Nick Gotts and all the other essentialists (platonists) on the thread: The belief that one possesses “objective truths” (which is to claim an absolute if it means anything) is essentialist, which is to say platonist, which is to say religious. – williamberry@245

    *sigh*
    I am, of course, neither an essentialist nor a Platonist. Are you capable of grasping the elementary distinction between believing there is an objective truth, and believing that one possesses it absolutely? Of course there is always the possibility that we are all being deceived in all our perceptual and cognitive operations by a deceitful intelligence, or that what we call reality is simply an illusion, but in practice, we all make and accept multiple truth-claims every day.

    I second PZ’s recommendation of Kuhn.

    Yes, I have read Kuhn, who as has already been pointed out, made clear that he was not a relativist, and did believe that science progresses.

    @261

    There were numbers before there was even intelligence?

    *sigh*
    Numbers are not things – they do not have spatio-temporal locations or causal power – but yes, chlorine atoms had seventeen protons in their nuclei and (in the un-ionised state) seventeen electrons bound to those nuclei before there were any organisms. That’s how they were able to combine with sodium atoms to produce sodium chloride.

    @267

    We can’t say that these ideas are false

    Then WTF do you think you’re arguing about?

  254. says

    Nick Gotts: you are making ignorant assertions about the nature of reality. I am simply saying you have no right to make such assertions. You are only assuming a privilege.

    And this started to get boring some time ago. Again, good night.

  255. Nick Gotts says

    believing there is an objective truth – Me@274

    Better: believing that there are objectively true claims or assertions. Truth is a property of some members of a class of abstract objects.

  256. Nick Gotts says

    Nick Gotts: you are making ignorant assertions about the nature of reality. – williamberry@275

    On the contrary, the ignorance is all yours. I’ve actually taken the trouble to argue for my position, you have merely asserted your sense of smug superiority and dropped a few names.

  257. says

    No, xe didn’t – or at least, the answer was beside the point. “Prime”, applied to numbers, has a primary meaning, which is “cannot be factorized into positive integers greater than 1″

    She!

    And, yes, 17 does have a primary meaning. (See below)

    My point re: ZFC was merely to say that before we had, for instance, the Peano axioms (or later ZFC and construction of a Peano set), no one could actually say what “17” was without some appeal to similarities between collections of certain amounts of objects. Now we do, but only within that framework. Maybe the Peano axioms are mind-independent. But I really don’t think that that is an objective truth (even less so than I’m convinced about any of the other examples in this thread.)

    @firstapproximation 263

    200 was just a joke about Gaussian primes and smart-alecky questions.

    It wasn’t a joke, though the questions were primarily me being a smart-aleck. The content was nonetheless true: when Nick Gotts says “17 is prime” he is assuming that everyone will understand that he is referring to 17 in the context of the integers, not the Gaussian integers. In the first case, his statement is true, in the second not, and it is history and culture that bring us to think of the first set rather than the second, despite the fact that in mathematics the reals and their integers are not more central or important than the complex and theirs. (OK, there are some reasons to think they are, but I’m pretty sure that’s just because they were defined first, so the others were constructed from them rather than the other way around.)

    So it’s objectively true that, under ZF, 17 is a prime?

    Given standard constructions of first-order logic and the definition of truth within them, yes. (But, of course, is the fact that these constructions are standard “objective”?

    Look, I’m not trying to say that there aren’t true and false statements. I’m saying that even in fairly objective settings, there’s more influence of culture and society on those statements than is often thought, and that’s where postmodernism is useful.

  258. Nick Gotts says

    Ada@278

    My point re: ZFC was merely to say that before we had, for instance, the Peano axioms (or later ZFC and construction of a Peano set), no one could actually say what “17″ was without some appeal to similarities between collections of certain amounts of objects.

    Well actually, they could do so perfectly well, for example by saying it was the 7th prime, that it was 1 greater than the 4th power of 2, that it was exactly half of 34… The Peano and ZFC axioms were devised in such a way that the facts we already knew about 17, and other integers, could be proved from them.

    Look, I’m not trying to say that there aren’t true and false statements.

    But a lot of other people appear to be doing so. Williamberry, for example, seems to think that because integers are not supernatural beings, there are no arithmetical facts.

  259. consciousness razor says

    You are right that a lot of people believe in a platonic view of the “natural” numbers (I scare-quote just to be clear I am alert to the possibility of the platonism being slipped in through the back door of “naturalism”). And in answer to your question: Yes, I do believe the concept is essentially (no pun intended) religious, because it is a belief in transcendence, which is, indeed, a version of the supernatural.

    I wouldn’t call myself anything since my position is mainly indifference, but this is bullshit and incredibly unfair. I don’t see how platonism (mathematical platonism in particular, or the more reasonable forms in general) could be described as religious or as implying a belief in “transcendence” or in the “supernatural.” There’s no need to claim anything about agents which are god-like or spirit-like, having intentions and ideas with no physical embodiment. There’s not even a need to claim something “transcendent” is perfect and floating out there in the ether, while the world is imperfect. It’s just a view about the existence of certain abstractions. That’s not anywhere close to a religion.

    Also, I doubt a garden-variety platonist would only believe there are natural numbers, and that the rest don’t “exist” (in the sense a platonist uses the term) out of a concern for “naturalism.” That would be extremely silly. I reckon most wouldn’t assume, like you apparently, that “existence” can only have a meaning for natural objects like tables and chairs (and other things they can count, hence also the natural numbers). If they have a platonist view at all, it seems way more likely they’d be internally-consistent and say the same about irrationals, imaginaries, etc., as they would about natural numbers. I suspect the fascination with numbers like pi, e, phi, etc. (which I assume is at least as prominent with platonists as others) is reason enough to doubt your claim.

    Don’t you realize that some of these platonists do, in fact, believe in God, or, at least, have mystical ideas about the nature of reality? Think of Roger Penrose bizarre bull-shit, or John Wheeler’s “It from Bit”.

    What do I realize? This is guilt by association.

  260. says

    Seeing fellow mathematicians arguing that “17 is prime” is not objectively true hurt in the same way people with biology degrees espousing creationism hurt. 17 itself is a construct in ZF, and the statement about it is formulated in ZF.
    So by definition of the words one is using “17 is a prime”. The actual truth of the axioms of ZF may be up to debate (I think it is hard to see how they are wrong, but this is besides the poit) but the statement “17 is prime” is not. It is so by definition.

    The part where the definition of integers is conflated with Gaussian integers to make a rethorical point is just omg.

  261. firstapproximation says

    The content was nonetheless true: when Nick Gotts says “17 is prime” he is assuming that everyone will understand that he is referring to 17 in the context of the integers, not the Gaussian integers. In the first case, his statement is true, in the second not, and it is history and culture that bring us to think of the first set rather than the second, despite the fact that in mathematics the reals and their integers are not more central or important than the complex and theirs.

    I’m saying that even in fairly objective settings, there’s more influence of culture and society on those statements than is often thought

    All of this is true, but I don’t see how that in any way contradicts the idea that the primality of seventeen is objectively true.

    I’m all for looking for hidden assumptions or the ways culture/society influence our thinking, but this isn’t anything exclusive or original to post modernism. Furthermore, post modernism seems to consist of far more than just this.

  262. nonabeliananyon says

    What I think skeptics who misunderstand post-modernism (along with post-modernists who misunderstand science) need to reflect upon is that science really is ALREADY post-modern, and that post-modernism should be viewed as the humanities catching up with the sciences from an ideological perspective.

    I’d also like to take the opportunity to wholeheartedly deny the it is an Objective Fact(TM) that “the earth is billions of years old” (and hopefully this line of reasoning makes it clear to the knee-jerkers why all scientific fact is “unobjective”). Like any good critical analysis, this one will start by examining the words and concepts being used. “Earth?” For our purposes this word means the gravitationally bound spheroid of matter that humans live on the surface of, and we measure its age as the time from when protoplanetary-disk-debris cleared out from around the planet (I don’t know jack about geology so I’ll leave the rock-dating to someone else).

    Already we can see the unobjective nature of pretty much all these concepts. We are choosing to focus on a particular definition of “the earth,” or more precisely, only focus on the aspects of the earth that we feel are relevant to our ideas. How do we know we aren’t leaving something out? What are the essential and what are the circumstantial aspects of “the earth?” We consider its constituent matter essential, and e.g. the fact that today the Grand Canyon is a part of it to be mere circumstance. This distinction is an a priori arbitrary choice, which is really what makes the entire enterprise unobjective.

    One could argue that a wise definition is as good as objectivity if that was the whole story. But it gets worse. Similar qualifications apply to our choice of definition of “age.” This business of “clearing of the protoplanetary disk” doesn’t mean anything to us yet! Well, this isn’t an astronomy lesson so I’ll set aside most of those issues (most important of which is the uncertainty about our entire theory of planet formation that informs this choice of definition), and focus on the ambiguity of when (i.e. what is the defining event) we declare the disk “clear” (I’m feeling like a Scientologist now, haha). This will have to mean something like “moment when clumps of size X are on average a distance Y from the earth” (but what is “earth” BEFORE this defining moment of it’s own birth?). X and Y will have to be arbitrarily chosen to as to wind up with a defined concept that has the properties WE WANT it to have.

    Anyway, this sort of critical analysis can pretty much continue forever (I didn’t even get to the relativity of time according to observers moving at different speeds!), and the only resolution is to be a good atheist and accept reality for the messy, unobjective thing it is. Our definitions of concepts may be arbitrary, and our measurements may not always be accurate, but when we get together and try to sort these things we can come up with processes such as “if you measure X and then use Y theory to calculate the age of the earth from X you will get answer Z” and ASSERT that one will always get Z=4.5 billions of years (plus/minus some smaller uncertainty), but again even this assertion is not objective. It is justified by the concordance of observations from many different subjective scientists. So that’s what we go by. It’s subjectively objective.

  263. says

    To the extent that I understand it, my take is that Postmodernism has some valuable things to say–but it goes overboard.

    There are quite good reasons to believe in the existence of a world external to human minds, only some of which is subject to human volition (John Mackie, especially in his excellent Problems from Locke, has made (for me) a convincing case against subjectivist skepticism). That said, everything we think and say about either the external world or ourselves is of course a human construct–and, beyond fairly straightforward propositions, like the height of Mt. Everest, we should be on guard for the influence of political or religious preconceptions, or wishful thinking, or hatred, and so on. To the extent that Postmodernism hammers on those nails, I say: great.

  264. Esteleth, statistically significant to p ≤ 0.001 says

    Nick Gotts:

    Science does not accept yes

    But it does. It accepts that the earth is billions of years old, and that human activities are changing the climate, for example. It accepts that lions and tigers can interbreed, that nuclear fusion is occurring in the sun, that oaks grow from acorns, that hydrogen and oxygen can combine to form water…

    WRONG.

    Science accepts that the evidence indicates that the things you mention are true. Science accepts that the odds of those things being false is extraordinarily small.

    But science is not in the business of saying that those things have absolutely been proven to be true. Because they have not been.

  265. consciousness razor says

    All of this is true, but I don’t see how that in any way contradicts the idea that the primality of seventeen is objectively true.

    That depends on what you mean by “objectively true,” doesn’t it? It’s not as if the claim is that it’s (objectively) false. And it’s also not to say that it’s “not even wrong,” incoherent, meaningless or anything like that. The truth value of the specific claim itself, whether or not it has one, whether it refers to something which exists (as in the case of “17”) … none of that is at issue.

    So if you agree the claims are true, pretty much the only thing left to disagree about is what the term “objectivity” means and why that ought to be so.

    I’m all for looking for hidden assumptions or the ways culture/society influence our thinking, but this isn’t anything exclusive or original to post modernism.

    No one’s claimed originality or exclusivity. In any case, what would that be an argument against? If postmodernists harp on some issues, which have a long and sordid history of people harping on them while being ignored by others, what exactly does that say?

    Furthermore, post modernism seems to consist of far more than just this.

    Indeed. Just trying to convey a few of the basics in this thread, to counter lots of different misconceptions, has taken enough time already. But what more do you think it is? What difference does that make, whatever it is?

  266. consciousness razor says

    Science accepts that the evidence indicates that the things you mention are true. Science accepts that the odds of those things being false is extraordinarily small.

    But science is not in the business of saying that those things have absolutely been proven to be true. Because they have not been.

    What this basically amounts to is that these are claims which could be false. They are not necessarily true, by virtue of logic itself, known by any rational person* before they ever look out the window to see if the world actually looks that way. No empirical claim is like that.

    But I don’t think that implies science (personified) fails to “accept” a claim as true (or assent to it with a “yes”), if it in fact it has been observed to the best of our knowledge. Another facet of this problem is theory-ladenness: you don’t just get observations without any influence from pre-observational theorizing. But putting it all in terms of “provisional acceptance” (and denying that is a form of acceptance!) is more than a little confusing, and it elides all of these things until it just looks like a big mess.

    *Okay, one with enough time on their hands to think about it. I guess that basically narrows it down to philosophers.

  267. Esteleth, statistically significant to p ≤ 0.001 says

    Many scientists and scientifically-literate folks shy away from saying that things haven’t been proven and using the more precise formulation that the evidence indicates such-and-such, for the simple reason that they – rightfully – fear that such language will be twisted by the anti-science crowd to demand that “both sides” be given equal airtime and assert that evolution/global warming/etc is “only a theory.”

    It is a problem, one I completely acknowledge and feel passionately about.

    But that doesn’t mean that those things aren’t “only [sic] theories,” or that they have been proven.

  268. says

    I jump into this very long thread, knowing it has largely played itself out.

    Skimming the many comments, I note the absence of engagement with Sokal’s arguments, which go well beyond the original hoax.
    eg…
    http://www.physics.nyu.edu/sokal/
    http://www.physics.nyu.edu/sokal/weinberg.html
    http://www.physics.nyu.edu/sokal/noretta.html

    Whatever the value of postmodernism in the High Academy, when filtered down to the Colleges of Education it becomes an excuse for obscurantism and paralysis. If we cannot be sure that Newton’s physics is more true than Aristotle or ancient Hindu physics, how can schools advocate values and discipline.

    The classroom “appears” to be in chaos. (Just because students are standing on the seats and throwing books and pencils at each other. we can’t say it -really- is chaotic. We have to take into account the culture of the students.)

  269. firstapproximation says

    No one’s claimed originality or exclusivity.

    PZ did write: “That’s postmodernism. Wake up and notice all your assumptions.”

    In any case, what would that be an argument against?

    Against a bait and switch. It’s like when defenders of evolutionary pyschology claim that the only assumption made by subject is the uncontroversial claim (at least amongst rational people) that the human brain is a product of evolution. However, if you take a look at the actual work being done in that field you see that far more than that is assumed.

    But what more do you think it is?

    To take one example we’ve already discussed at great lengths, the claim that there is no objective truth.

  270. Esteleth, statistically significant to p ≤ 0.001 says

    Do you think that there is objective truth and that (other than extremely bland statements like, “in base 10, 17 is a prime number, if one discounts imaginary numbers”) humans are capable of arriving at them?

  271. Jacob Schmidt says

    Nick Gotts

    If there’s no objective truth, then it can’t be objectively true that one false idea is more useful than another. Truth-claims about utility are still truth-claims.

    Once more, see 108. You keep on conflating “truth” with “reality”. It’s understandable to do so, but there’s a distinction in postmodernism that you insist on ignoring. Postmodernism doesn’t use “truth” the way you do; you’re whole argument rests upon the assumption that it does.

  272. gillt says

    A.R. PZ: Well, if that’s how we’re going to define postmodernism, I’m on board. Because understanding the theory behind the fact is, after all, the difference between a scientist and a technician.

    Sounds like your idea of a scientist is someone who likes to delegate others in the execution of his brilliant ideas.

  273. says

    This might be a little off topic, but the question of scientific materialism and philsophical relativism is discussed her from an, umm, “Neo-Marxist” standpoint. There seems to be a dearth of thoughtful analyses of postmodern writing from the political Left so I thought it was worth posting.

    http://www.workerspower.net/marxism-vs-post-modernism

    This has been a very interesting thread and I thank everyone who posted here on all the various perspectives.

  274. consciousness razor says

    No one’s claimed originality or exclusivity.

    PZ did write: “That’s postmodernism. Wake up and notice all your assumptions.”

    When someone says “that’s life,” it doesn’t mean “this is how/when life started.” It’s just supposed to be an example of what life is like.

    Of course PZ’s comment is a vast oversimplification, but you’re not objecting to that, so I’ll let it go.

    Against a bait and switch. It’s like when defenders of evolutionary pyschology claim that the only assumption made by subject is the uncontroversial claim (at least amongst rational people) that the human brain is a product of evolution. However, if you take a look at the actual work being done in that field you see that far more than that is assumed.

    Huh? I take it that if something’s “original” or “exclusive,” it originated with them or it is theirs to the exclusion of others (presumably among a reasonable subset of people, not everyone at all times). My question had nothing to do with what other, hidden, controversial claims might be involved. The implication seems to be that postmodernism is unneeded because it’s unoriginal.

    *Not just in your comment, Nick Gotts made similar remarks at #106, and others here and there which I haven’t bothered to search for.

    Do you think that there is objective truth and that (other than extremely bland statements like, “in base 10, 17 is a prime number, if one discounts imaginary numbers”) humans are capable of arriving at them?

    Sure, why not?

  275. firstapproximation says

    Do you think that there is objective truth

    Yes.

    and that (other than extremely bland statements like, “in base 10, 17 is a prime number, if one discounts imaginary numbers”) humans are capable of arriving at them?

    I”m not sure what you mean by ‘extremely bland statements’. If you mean trivial statements, then I’d give Euler’s theorem as an example of a non-bland objective truth. If forced to I can list all the assumptions being made, like we’re working in ZF, and that I mean Euler’s theorem in modular arithmetic (the guy has got plenty of theorems named after him), what φ(n) means, etc. The fact that I don’t is only because it would be tedious and unnecessary.

    Or by ‘extremely bland statements’ do you mean analytic propositions (things that are true by definition) and are asking whether we can arrive at objective truths relating to the world? If so, then let’s take an example discussed earlier, the claim that the Earth is billions of years old. Of course the evidence is overwhelming that the Earth is billions of years old, but I agree with you that there’s a theoretic possibly that the statement is false. Maybe it was designed to look that way. Maybe I’m a brain in a jar and what I think of as the Earth is just an illusion. Either of these options are extremely unlikely, but they’re still theoretically possible. I’d say the Earth is billions of years old with probability 1- ε.

    When dealing with claims relating to the world objections like these are always possible. Are we able to arrive at objective truths about the world? Not with absolute certainty.

  276. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    Meta:

    Nick Gotts: you are making ignorant assertions about the nature of reality.

    Have you been around the internet? There isn’t a lot going on here that I would classify as ignorance. Its not like this disagreement would resolve itself if one simply “looked it up”.

  277. says

    Postmodernism is necessary and useful. That said, it gets a bad name from this kind of bullshit:

    Now, it would be necessary here to acknowledge furries and otherkin, many of whom do claim things like a “species identity”, or may similarly express the idea of being “an X trapped in a Y’s body”, or otherwise use (or perhaps appropriate) metaphors and terminologies related to transgenderism. Yes, I believe such identities are worth respecting. Everyone has the right to self-identify as they wish.

    LOL no.

    Steve Sommers:

    There is nothing scientifically wrong with eugenics.

    Do we know enough about genetics at this point to make this conclusion?

    Phillip A:

    Add colonial history into the mix, along with the fact that this philosophy was born and nursed on the European Continent, and you can put postmodernism on Freud’s couch, with a tentative diagnosis of Wild Overcompensation for White Privilege and White Guilt.

    Stopped reading at “white guilt.”

  278. rrhain says

    226, @consciousness razor: If your definition of “Earth” is predicated upon the isolation of particles created in the Big Bang, then I will definitively state that your definition is meaningless because it provides no way to distinguish one thing from another. That is, if you cannot distinguish “Earth” from “non-Earth,” then there is no point in asking, “How old is the Earth,” and the problem is not in that question but rather in the incoherent starting point that is being insisted upon.

    As predicted, this has devolved into hyperskepticism, where the very useful aspect of being cognizant of the assumptions you are making becomes so recursive that the result is that no assumptions are allowed. And almost invariably, people start down the road of “agendas” and suddenly someone insists that thus-and-so is politically motivated if not outright racism or sexism, and all is lost.

    I’m well-aware of the issue regarding assumptions. I do it in my own training. I do tech support and I get to bring new staff up to speed. One of the first things I do when trying to train a newbie is bring up something I stole from an old Foxtrot cartoon:

    A train leaves station A at 10 am for station B, 180 miles away, and arrives at 2 pm.

    What assumptions must you make in order to calculate the average speed of the train?

    In the general context of taking a test, the answer is clear: 180 miles, 4 hours, so 180/4 = 45 mph. But that makes an awful lot of assumptions: It assumes the track doesn’t meander, that it follows the curvature of the earth rather than tunneling through, that it’s going the short way around the earth rather than the long way, that it arrives on the same day, that the two stations are in the same time zone, that the clocks are functioning correctly, that we’re ignoring the effects of relativity, and so on.

    The reason I do this is as support, it’s your job to find out what’s wrong, not to give the right answer. Most times, someone will come to you with a problem and the answer is to do thus-and-so and they’ll be on their way. But every now and again, that won’t work because of something you’re overlooking. Because you assumed they were using Windows not Mac, that they were using Internet Explorer not Chrome, that they were logged in using the account under their name and not somebody else’s account, that their security settings were the standard ones, etc. While all those assumptions may be reasonable, you need to be willing to accept that they might be wrong and ready to check them when expected results don’t happen.

    For crying out loud, one of the biggest examples of this was the development of non-Euclidean geometry. Mathematicians were going nuts trying to show that Euclid’s Fifth Postulate (when two lines are crossed by a transversal, they will meet on the side for which the interior angles sum to less than two right angles) wasn’t actually a postulate but was derivable from the others. An awful lot of work was done on this until it was finally accepted that yes, it’s a postulate. And in the process, they discovered all sorts of interesting geometries that arise when you change that postulate.

    So examining your assumptions, good thing. Understanding the cultural environment in which you are doing your science is also a good thing. Neither of those is postmodernism as it is actually practiced. The former is standard science. The latter is the philosophy and ethics of science.

  279. Esteleth, statistically significant to p ≤ 0.001 says

    CR:

    Do you think that there is objective truth and that (other than extremely bland statements like, “in base 10, 17 is a prime number, if one discounts imaginary numbers”) humans are capable of arriving at them?

    Sure, why not?

    Really? You have a much better opinion of humanity’s collective intellect than I do.

    Humans have a remarkable ability to ignore the proverbial elephant in the room, because the elephant is the wrong color, has excessively floppy ears, or because everyone knows that elephants live in India, not London.

    While you can – in some cases – make the argument that we are getting better about recognizing and correcting for our biases, if you’re going to seriously argue that we actually accomplish this most of the time, then all I can say is that you’re deluded.

  280. says

    @Nick Gotts

    truth is a state of knowledge and understanding.

    No, it most definitely is not. This seems to be the fundamental postmodernist confusion. Truth is a property of actual or potential claims or assertions about reality.

    According to a theory of truth, and according to a model of reality, both of which are entirely conceptual. There’s no confusion — it’s just that people have intuitions about truth and reality that they don’t tend to examine further. And that’s the whole point — to examine them further. When we do, we find that it is very difficult if not impossible to justify them in any airtight way.

    That’s really the trivial part. The interesting part is looking at why our conceptions are the way they are. What is attractive about thinking of things as “having properties”? What is carried over conceptually, if anything, from other senses of “property”, like real estate? When two people think of something as “having” a property, are their conceptions pretty much the same, or are there significant variations in different cultures, genders or age groups? Do we mean something different when we say a material object has a property than when we say something less materially sensible like a claim has a property? If we think of an object’s property changing, do we think that the object is the same but only the property changed, or do we think that it’s now a different object? On what basis do we consider objects and their properties to be separate? Does the idea you have about something having a property change from when you were a child?

  281. A. R says

    gillt @ 294: Yep, that’s exactly what many scientists do. Grad students, technicians and undergrads exist for a reason. My PI hasn’t done much real lab work in years, but he still has several publications. Most science is done in offices, bars, cafes, and on couches at home, not the lab.

  282. says

    Yes, it does because saying that one person is more biased than another is still a truth-claim.

    and? no one said there’s no truth, or that truth-claims are impossible. the point is about objective truth.

    Truth is a property of actual or potential claims or assertions about reality.

    i already explained the difference between truth and reality. you wish to continue to ignora that, that’s your choice.

    If modernists had thought that, clearly they would have seen science and mathematics as pointless, as they would have believed they already knew everything.

    this is nonsense, since science and mathematics is how modernity believes it knows objective reality.

    “I am a mammal” is an exact and objectively true statement, but not a complete description of me.

    it’s a definitionally true statement, the same way “all bachelors are single” is true.

  283. consciousness razor says

    Really? You have a much better opinion of humanity’s collective intellect than I do.

    Thanks? I’ve been practicing my opinionating — oh, you mean my attitude is more positive. Probably not by much.

    The second part your question was at least reasonable, I guess. But it’s not as if you asked whether people can ever be omniscient, or even whether they can know everything about a single subject. You just asked if we could know things which are true (specifically ones which aren’t too “bland” for you). Yes, I think so. We tend not to be very objective about our approach, in lots and lots of ways, but I’m not seeing anything impossible about knowing stuff that’s true.

    But I wasn’t just answering that, was I? Do you think there are “objective truths”? If there are not, I’d like to know what the hell is supposed to be in their place.

  284. Esteleth, statistically significant to p ≤ 0.001 says

    I do think there are objective truths. 2 +2 = 4 in base ten, for example. And yeah, I’d say that we as humans are capable of knowing that.

    But many – most – questions are not objective. Because most questions have more riding on them than “What is 2 +2 in base ten?”

    As the power of a given answer to affect your life increases, the vulnerability of that answer to be subjective tends to also rise.

  285. says

    Do you think there are “objective truths”? If there are not, I’d like to know what the hell is supposed to be in their place.

    Do you think there are “objective truths”? If there are not, I’d like to know what the hell is supposed to be in their place.more or less biased truths, as well as truths that are models of objective reality?
    I don’t get why this is hard to understand.

  286. MJP says

    “Post-modernism says that explaing the world using the behaviour of Apollo is every bit as valid as using the behaviour of atoms.”

    I admit that I don’t know a lot about postmodernism, but is this actually what they believe? This sounds like a ridiculous straw-man, analogous to “evolutionists think dogs give birth to cats.”

  287. Esteleth, statistically significant to p ≤ 0.001 says

    I admit that I don’t know a lot about postmodernism, but is this actually what they believe? This sounds like a ridiculous straw-man, analogous to “evolutionists think dogs give birth to cats.”

    Well, I’d peg it as a bit closer to “some people who believe in evolution are racist assholes who think we should kill/enslave everyone who isn’t a white guy.”

    Which is to say, it isn’t that they don’t exist, it is that they’re doing it very, very wrong.

  288. congenital cynic says

    If you can’t grok a billion, you’re not doing it right. I have no problem with a billion. In my occupation we deal with billionths of a second all the time. And other similarly large and small numbers, all of which have physical consequences as a result of their highly disparate values.

    I’ve had a dollar in my hand, I’ve had ten, I’ve had a hundred, I’ve had a thousand dollars in cash in my hand. I’ve had 10 thousand in cash in my hand. I’ve had a cheque for 25k in my hand. I’ve had a cheque for 200k in my hand (ouch, it was a house). I have no trouble with a cheque that is five times that large, which would be a million. And I have no issue dealing with a thousand of those cheques. Just give them to me and watch. It’s not even a tiny issue. I know where they would go and what I’d do with the money. It is neither conceptually nor actually challenging. Nor is a 10 Mohm resistor, or 100 of them.

    If you want to talk about Cantor’s types of infinity, then you could convince me that there’s a conceptual challenge. But a billion? No. That’s completely within the grasp of people who work with materials that have properties spanning 26 orders of magnitude (conductivity) and the devices made to exploit that.

  289. ibyea says

    @congenital cynic
    I am sorry, but I don’t think you can actually imagine what a billion is. So far, you are using some model to help you kind of see what it looks like, but I doubt you can actually have a feel for. No one here is saying that we can’t use the number billion.

  290. ibyea says

    Btw, some help here. If truth=knowledge the way you define it in philosophy, does that mean the word knowledge and truth is interchangeable? Because if so, I guess I agree with post modernism, there is no way to possibly know everything, and that asking whether 17 is prime comes along with many assumptions and history. But if so, why the need for post modernism? I am honestly baffled because other stuff in philosophy seems to cover the need for post modernism quiet well, like ethics and stuff.

  291. Alan Nixon says

    In sociological circles it has become recognised by many that the postmodern critique (which is how I believe it should be viewed, as a critique of extreme modernism, positivism and ethnocentrism) was necessary, but that it has gone too far in some places. This led to increasing calls for a cross-pollination of structural (modernist) and socio-cultural level interactionist views. We had to recognise Marx’s statement that:

    “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”

    As well known examples at fusing I would include: Frames (Goffman; mostly interactionist), Discourses (Foucault; often seen as a postmodernist), Habitus (Bourdieu), Structuration (Giddens), Realism (Basker and Archer) and Complexity Theory (Byrnes, Eve et al., Sawyer, Smith and Jenks and many more, still an emerging field in Sociology, I would also include recent work by Bellah).

    The point is that people do see from within an embodied space. You cannot remove yourself from your body or your influences (brain/mind) and you can’t help but see the world from a biased point of view. You are human. You are limited. You exist in a particular society and culture. You see the world from your perspective and you must translate the perspectives of other people through this same apparatus. The real world may exist but you will only ever know it through your particular view and the translated views of other individuals via your empathy and intellect. This is all true. I don’t believe it destroys reality in the way that some postmodernists have concluded, but I think we must take it into account, even in science.

    Sociology still has many postmodernists, but many people over the last 50 years or so have been trying to work past its extreme versions. We understand that agency and structure are linked in some way, but we are very much still working on the models. I believe we are getting closer to a synthesis, with some of the biggest points of contention being how to model the actor (how much power and freedom to allow them for example; computer models are helping this over time) and whether the structure should be represented in realist or virtual terms. I would argue that social structures can be real (have actual restricting affects on individuals) but that they are spacio-temporal (limited in time and space) and supervening (rely on the continued support of actors).

    The lesson here is that every discipline is very complex and making judgments based on your limited knowledge of a discipline is not wise. Sociology, like every discipline, has many strands and continues to evolve over time with consensus shifting and stances taken. This itself is one of the lessons of postmodernism.

    I agree with PZ’s call for a return to postmodern reflection in the Irreligious community. It has become all too clear that politics and differing perspectives are causing enclaving and confirmation bias on all sides. The postmodern critique (and please remember that it is only a critique) is a very useful lesson for the current irreligious milieu.

  292. Meredith L. Patterson says

    Ada @200:

    But 17 can be written as the product of two other integers, neither of which is 1 or 17 like so:

    (4 + i)(4 – i) = 16 – i^2 = 16 + 1 = 17

    (Oh, you didn’t mean the Gaussian integers? Well, why are the integers considered more fundamental an integral domain for the consideration of whether a number is prime than the Gaussian integers? Is there an objective basis for that, or is it just that they were discovered first? Or a mix?)

    It’s a bit dishonest of you to conflate “the integers” with “the Gaussian integers” — which are actually complex numbers — just because A.R. doesn’t have the specialist knowledge to say Z or describe the distinction between Z and Z[i]. A layperson referring to “the integers” is referring to the set we mathematicians refer to as Z, and of course that’s “culturally constructed” as a function of mathematics education, but that’s beside the point. The Gaussian integers may have the word “integers” in their name, but that does not make them members of Z — the set A.R. was referring to.

    This sort of argument-by-pun is common in postmodernist criticism, but it’s not an argument. It’s the fallacy of equivocation, and deserves to be called out as such every time it’s invoked.

  293. says

    pro-tip: when discussing supposedly new directions in sociology, it would probably help to cite some developments that are younger than some sociologists. Habitus? Structuration? That’s supposed to be post-postmodernist? (I think you’re confusing subjectivist and objectivist strands of sociology with modernist and post-modernist strands. the discussion of structures vs agency is a different discussion than the discussion between modern and post-modern social theory)

  294. Ichthyic says

    to add to what Esteleth said at 285, it can be worded correctly as saying that science accepts NOTHING.

    In simplest terms, the sole job of science is to reject any particular null hypothesis. Failure to do so provisionally grants weight to the alternative hypothesis under examination, but does not mean it is “accepted”. Acceptance is a sociological phenomenon, not a scientific one, which does not mean it has no weight, but simply that it isn’t “science” in and of itself.

    As a specific example, natural selection as a mechanism of evolution isn’t accepted as science, in strict terms. It simply has been unable to be rejected through much empirical testing so far, which makes it much more “accepted” in the sociological sense.

  295. Ichthyic says

    I’ve had a thousand dollars in cash in my hand

    have you had one thousand one dollar bills in your hand? Ten thousand?

    categorization is what allows our minds to easily wrap themselves around extremely large or small numbers.

    holding a check for a billion dollars in your hand is one thing.

    being in a vault with a billion one dollar bills is another thing entirely.

  296. Alan Nixon says

    pro-tip?….

    Respectfully, the latest things I cited were from the mid to late 2000’s and I was trying to give works that people might get their hands on…

    Also, respectfully, I think you misunderstood my purpose in citing these works.

    Postmodernism and the responses to it have been developing in many directions, in many fields, for a long time. It has also interacted with other strands of thought and broken into many branches. Thus, I am drawing a cut through the complex field of sociology and postmodernist influence over time. I am doing this to show the types of developments that ended up leading past pure postmodern subjectivity (‘relativism’ is the term thrown about normally I believe) chaos into a more balanced position between purely objectivist and subjectivist views. I’m partly doing that because I think one of the big mistakes that I see in comments about postmodernism is the thought that the critique is where it ended or that extreme versions of postmodernist ideas are the only ones. There has been an on-going effort to understand and integrate what became known as postmodernism, which is a really broad range of critiques that I couldn’t possibly cover in a comment. Both Bourdieu and Giddens included postmodernist ideas in their works, especially in the 80’s and 90’s. The Modernism/Postmodernism and the Objectivism/Subjectivism arguments are highly intertwined. The modernists where accused of being rigid objectivists, hence the increasing attacks on structuralism and positivism in the mid 20th C. Conversely, the very subjectivist tendencies of postmodernists are what lead people to accuse them of ‘relativism’. These are connected arguments.

  297. Alan Nixon says

    can’t edit so…

    “Both Bourdieu and Giddens included postmodernist ideas in their works, especially in the 80′s and 90′s”

    should have read:

    “Both Bourdieu and Giddens included postmodernist ideas in their works, especially in the 80′s and 90′s, but they were also both attempting to retain structures, which to me places them in the group who lead to “post-postmodernism” as you put it.

  298. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    @Icthyic

    In simplest terms, the sole job of science is to reject any particular null hypothesis. Failure to do so provisionally grants weight to the alternative hypothesis under examination, but does not mean it is “accepted”. Acceptance is a sociological phenomenon, not a scientific one, which does not mean it has no weight, but simply that it isn’t “science” in and of itself.

    I’m feeling very dumb. I think I know how I would describe what I think you’re describing, and I wouldn’t use these words. Is there an accidental word switch (or two) in here, or am I not getting what you’re saying?

    I thought the job of science was to **presume** any particular null hypothesis. Failure of testing to comform to the null hypothesis would then provisionally grant weight to an alternative hypothesis under examination if it can explain the specific deviation from the prediction of the null hypothesis.

    Are we saying the same thing & I can’t see it? Have I gone wrong somewhere?

  299. gbjames says

    “somehow it became cause to dismiss the entire field”

    “Somehow”? And why might that be? Might it be because gobbledegook is indistinguishable from “scholarly” post-modern “research”?

  300. gillt says

    gillt @ 294: Yep, that’s exactly what many scientists do. Grad students, technicians and undergrads exist for a reason. My PI hasn’t done much real lab work in years, but he still has several publications. Most science is done in offices, bars, cafes, and on couches at home, not the lab.

    supervision of project
    data analysis
    experimental design
    drafting the manuscript or revising it for intellectual content
    providing $

    So which of these isn’t doing science? Or are you one of those blinkered fossils who do science in a vacuum and believe in sole authorship.

  301. David Wilford says

    Not really about post-modernism, but definitely about looking differently at assumptions:

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/sep/26/doctor-who-made-revolution/

    It was in the 1890s that Sara Josephine Baker decided to become a doctor. Not the Josephine Baker who would become celebrated as a cabaret star and dance at the Folies Bergère in a banana miniskirt but the New York City public health official in a shirtwaist and four-in-hand necktie, her short hair parted in the middle like Theodore Roosevelt, whom she admired. By the time Baker retired from the New York City Health Department in 1923, she was famous across the nation for saving the lives of 90,000 inner-city children. The public health measures she implemented, many still in use today, have saved the lives of millions more worldwide. She was also a charming, funny storyteller, and her remarkable memoir, Fighting for Life, is an honest, unsentimental, and deeply compassionate account of how one American woman helped launch a public health revolution.

  302. Mark Pawelek says

    I’m a closet pomoist. I’m scientifically minded but I, sort of, reject objective truth. Rejecting objective truth doesn’t mean everything goes. I know that certain facts are privileged and that some world views and models are better than others. Still, all those facts did enter my understanding via culture. Every thesis and model is only that. They explain, predict or do both, but are not ‘true'; in the sense that models don’t reflect the world. Objects do not go into their concepts without leaving a remainder.

    I don’t think pomo can be rehabilitated. It’s been trashed by the ultras. Those behind Social Text have made it impossible for me to admit to my pomo without shame. If I had to choose between pomo and Sokal; Sokal gets my vote every time. Reason’s all we have for making sense of the world. Pomo thinkers only ever wanted to play games, but everyone wishing to do something more must make sense of the world. It’s still possible to do deconstruction; provided one doesn’t go over-the-top; not every thesis or model has equal explanatory or predictive power.

    [q]What was wrong with wanting medicine or engineering or environmental science to be publicly answerable and of some service to progressive interests?[/q]

    Post-modernism has no critique and takes no sides. Without an alternative there can’t be a critique; and critique only makes sense when it points to something beyond. I’m baffled as to why you think pomo can be a tool to bring science to account. It can’t be.

    [q]the goals of scientists should include progressive values[/q]

    That’s not something pomo thinkers must agree with. Political choices pomo thinkers make are independent of their philosophy.

  303. Ichthyic says

    I thought the job of science was to **presume** any particular null hypothesis.

    nope.

    the job is to construct an experiment to reject the null hypothesis.

    example from my own work:

    It’s observed that there exists vast color differences between adult and juvenile stages of a specific damselfish (in my case, there are several).

    the starting null hypothesis is that this color difference is nothing more than an example of genetic drift, and has no behavioral significance; no impact on fitness whatsoever.

    my goal would be to construct an experiment that would reject that hypothesis. If I can show it DOES have behavioral significance, that would be one way to attempt to disprove the null hypothesis.

    that help?

  304. Ichthyic says

    to continue to the next step….

    say my experiment to reject the initial null hypothesis of drift was successful (statistically significant behavioral variable correlated with color pattens of adult vs juvenile – it was, btw). Does that mean science now accepts that the significant variable I identified is the cause of the difference in coloration?

    nope. It means myself and others now construct tests in order to attempt to reject THAT hypothesis as well. And on and on it goes.

    now, of course, this is the principle behind the method, and the way the method proceeds. That doesn’t mean that we, AS scientists, do not take the relevant significant information generated by each experiment and exclude it as impacting our conclusions about what drives the observations of the color differences to begin with. In fact, it’s that very thing that ends up defining who we are in the scientific world; we identify ourselves by the work we have done and the conclusions we have drawn from it.

    I don’t go to a conference, and make a presentation about my work as if I was in the process of trying to reject all of it (even though in practice, that’s how my experiments are designed). No, I go and make a POSITIVE case to argue for why ontogenetic color change occurs in a particular population of fish.

    this, I think, is where PZ tries to tie science back to postmodernism. Science is reductionist in method, but scienTISTS are not; they take each piece of information, and try to work it into telling a plausible story based on the current conglomeration of evidence from observation and experiment.

    that’s how I viewed it, anyway, and why I felt any need at all to jump into this, not really being a student of the philosophy of postmodernist critique to begin with.

  305. says

    Dead thread and all, but I just want to salute the really excellent comments by “Horstmann”, “Ada”, “Alan Nixon”, “ichthyic”, et al. Not to mention the OP by PZM.

    At least the Acolytes of The Church of the Magic Numbers didn’t win the thread by sheer force of repetition!

    I am disappointed but not really surprised to find that neo-platonic essentialism is still wide-spread in the science-minded “skeptic” community.

    I think that we can still say, with some degree of confidence, that the “answer to the questions of life, the universe, and everything” is not 42!

    Nor 17, for that matter.

    (Yes, I am being a smart-ass, but it is hard not to be contemptuous of some of the silliness on display in this thread.)

  306. anchor says

    Ichthyic describes accurately my view.

    I reject any overture that suggests I do not understand something I already understand.

  307. anchor says

    “I am disappointed but not really surprised to find that neo-platonic essentialism is still wide-spread in the science-minded “skeptic” community.”

    I am neither at all surprised or disappointed that people can acquire an education that gives them the idea that they can qualify what science is supposed to be all about and what the actual scientists are supposed to be all about.

    I agree completely with Ichthyic.

    What bothers me is that something that isn’t science wants to determine what science is.

  308. Alan Nixon says

    I agree completely with Ichthyic.

    What bothers me is that something that isn’t science wants to determine what science is.

    Perhaps I am misunderstanding your statement, so please correct me if I’m wrong. You seem to be indicating that you agree with Ichthyic, but that you don’t think that the social sciences (from which postmodernism is derived) are in fact sciences. Looking at what Ichthyic stated:

    It means myself and others now construct tests in order to attempt to reject THAT hypothesis as well. And on and on it goes.

    This is what social scientists do too. We do it in a less reductionist way, but we must put forward an idea that will be tested systematically and (eventually, it can take some time even in ‘hard’ sciences) and accepted or rejected by peer review. In the case of postmodernism one of the ideas was that our embodied nature has an effect on the production of knowledge and our ability to be objective. Tests can be put forward and evidence gathered to show that this hypothesis has validity, they have been, and it is now difficult to deny this idea, hence positivism is now a stinking corpse in most social science disciplines. I’ll admit that this is not as straight forward in less reductionist disciplines and may have to be tested with multiple theories and methodologies to check for theoretical bias. However, all sciences deal with this issue through the particular theoretical biases of the researcher.

  309. Ichthyic says

    This is what social scientists do too.

    just to be clear, and avoid any confusion, I have always considered sociology just like any other branch of science, and don’t reject it because some practitioners don’t treat it that way themselves. I’ve learned a lot from reading various papers in sociology journals.

    but then, I feel the same way about Evo Psych, Sociobiology, and Psychology.

  310. Alan Nixon says

    just to be clear, and avoid any confusion, I have always considered sociology just like any other branch of science, and don’t reject it because some practitioners don’t treat it that way themselves. I’ve learned a lot from reading various papers in sociology journals.

    but then, I feel the same way about Evo Psych, Sociobiology, and Psychology.

    Thanks for the clarification Ichthyic. I did get that impression from your posts :-)

    There are people that push the boundaries in most disciplines and sometimes that can be very useful, despite the bad cases. Science is not set in stone, it evolves, so to me we need those boundary testers.

    I feel that way about Evo Psych, Sociobiology, and Psychology too. They all have what I would consider more and less valid research programs. I’ve used all of them in my own thinking and writing. I do think there is a biological influence on social and psychological systems (seems weird to me that I even have to say that, but I do), including religious and ideological ones, and it is very hard to do sociology well without psychology imo. The issue to me comes up when a researcher or field wishes to claim that their research interest or political goal is of primary significance. Then we need the postmodern critique ;-)

  311. anchor says

    “The issue to me comes up when a researcher or field wishes to claim that their research interest or political goal is of primary significance. Then we need the postmodern critique ;-)”

    Ah, yes — how nice of the social sciences to come to the rescue of the hard side.

    …especially when it comes to “research interests” or “political goals”, and, you know, with that monetarily hefty dose of “postmodernistic” analysis that’s involved, which so clearly establishes how the SCIENCE should be obtained.

    Because, when you boil it all right down to the tar, its obvious to everyone that science can only proceed according to what the political climate dictates, and that’s the exclusive province of some social science…right?

  312. anchor says

    Sorry, my bad temper precluded me from properly caging the quote intended, that of Alan Nixon’s, thus:

    “The issue to me comes up when a researcher or field wishes to claim that their research interest or political goal is of primary significance. Then we need the postmodern critique ;-)”

    Perhaps such an oversight can be explained by my emotional reaction toward the pretense of establishing a popular notion of what constitutes proper scientific method.

  313. Alan Nixon says

    “Ah, yes — how nice of the social sciences to come to the rescue of the hard side.”

    I spent most of my comments arguing that the sciences inform each other. I don’t think it is unreasonable that a hard science would be less concerned with these ideas or that a social science may have looked at them in more depth. If I want to know about chemical or biological experiments I don’t normally ask a sociologist…I don’t think that political climate is the only factor, though I think it is reasonable to think it is one and yes, one that the social sciences specialise in.

    monetarily hefty…?

    Ha! We wish! I’d prob write some more if that were the case, since I do sometimes think deconstruction is useful.

    Perhaps such an oversight can be explained by my emotional reaction toward the pretense of establishing a popular notion of what constitutes proper scientific method.

    I’m sorry to invoke your temper, it wasn’t my intention.

    Perhaps I didn’t articulate myself clearly enough.

    The quote you cite was about the people and institutions that use the scientific method, not the method itself.

    People are ideological, emotional and embodied creatures. We have vested interests in the success of our endeavours. Postmodernist theory recognises (among many other things) that there are personal and political interests in the production of all knowledge because that knowledge is being produced by humans in a society. Not necessarily because the scientific method is fatally flawed…pragmatically, its a very successful method that social scientists also use. But because the people using it do not always make decisions based on the method, but on personal politics or interest. Experiments are fudged or (possibly unintentionally) biased, disciplines gain political favour and cultural superiority, culturally specific ideas are generalised and science is used in the support of racism, sexism, homophobia etc.

    My comment applies to any person or institution active in any branch of science. It addresses those who rhetorically attack or dismiss other disciplines or theories in order to achieve their political or personal goals.

  314. Esteleth, statistically significant to p ≤ 0.001 says

    At the risk of grabbing a bit of religious cant for repurposing, I’d say that (IMO) the physical sciences say how such-and-such happened, but the social sciences say why.

  315. Ichthyic says

    At the risk of grabbing a bit of religious cant for repurposing, I’d say that (IMO) the physical sciences say how such-and-such happened, but the social sciences say why.

    meh, that really doesn’t work either. physical sciences themselves have their own classification of how/why that translates to proximate vs ultimate.

  316. consciousness razor says

    At the risk of grabbing a bit of religious cant for repurposing, I’d say that (IMO) the physical sciences say how such-and-such happened, but the social sciences say why.

    meh, that really doesn’t work either. physical sciences themselves have their own classification of how/why that translates to proximate vs ultimate.

    Yeah, the language of “how” vs. “why” doesn’t really convey the meaning I think that kind of a statement is supposed to have. I think Esteleth would say the social sciences can try to explain people’s reasons for behaving different ways (and they tend to be the best ways to explain them). That’s part of what they’re about and what their methods do. There are a lot of assumptions, of agency and intention and awareness, that people have values and meaningful ideas, which are built right into the discipline from the beginning. Those are usually unproblematic, because it’s a straightforward fact about people — with that kind of starting point, you can get to the real business of an actual explanation of some actual phenomenon. That’s not like physics and so on, which just doesn’t deal in those terms in the first place. (That is, even though physics could in principle give its own kinds of explanations for the same things, that’s generally not what physicists try to do at present, which is why this distinction between “hard” and “soft” science is not especially useful.) The point is that we can ask about why people do things, in a way that doesn’t really translate to asking why an electron does things. You can ask how a person or an electron behaves, but an electron doesn’t have reasons of its own for behaving some way rather than another. You could of course say physical laws and constants and various conditions are “the reasons” for its behaviors (which are “why” it’s this way rather than another way, or “how” it is), but that’s all very different from the sort of abstract reasons that come up when we’re talking about people (or other animals).

  317. Alan Nixon says

    I think Esteleth would say the social sciences can try to explain people’s reasons for behaving different ways (and they tend to be the best ways to explain them). That’s part of what they’re about and what their methods do. There are a lot of assumptions, of agency and intention and awareness, that people have values and meaningful ideas, which are built right into the discipline from the beginning.</blockquote

    Well articulated consciousness razor! I was going to write a similar thing, but I think your comment covers it :-) . All areas of science look at hows and whys, the difference is in methodology and methods and that applies to nearly all sciences. I was discussing this with my partner, who is a PhD student in Animal Behaviour and we believe that animal studies is also beginning to get to the point where some of the methods in social science can be useful for the discipline, although language is missing (not completely of course), we are dealing with heterogeneous communities with individual perceptions and personalities. To truly study the social life of animals, these will eventually need to be taken into account. In many cases the division between 'hard' and 'soft' sciences is beginning to look more fuzzy, as the soft sciences mature and the hard sciences deal with less reducible complexity.

  318. Alan Nixon says

    ugh stuff up in quoting…I’m sure y’all can figure it out. Is there any way to edit comments on this site? I do more lurking than commenting here. Can’t see an option.

  319. Nick Gotts says

    Apologies for returning to a dead thread, but I haven’t until now felt able to spend the time I was sure would be required.

    But science is not in the business of saying that those things have absolutely been proven to be true. – Esteleth@285

    I didn’t say it was. Your “Science does not accept yes” is not the same as “science is not in the business of saying that those things have absolutely been proven to be true”. See consciousness razor@387.

    Do you think that there is objective truth and that (other than extremely bland statements like, “in base 10, 17 is a prime number, if one discounts imaginary numbers”) humans are capable of arriving at them? – Esteleth@291

    Yes. There really is no largest prime number, fusion of hydrogen into helium really is occurring in the sun, the stars really are trillions of kilometres away, human beings really are descended from non-human animals…

    You keep on conflating “truth” with “reality”. It’s understandable to do so, but there’s a distinction in postmodernism that you insist on ignoring. Postmodernism doesn’t use “truth” the way you do; you’re whole argument rests upon the assumption that it does. – Jacob Schmidt@292

    No, I am not conflating “truth” with “reality”. Rather, you and your pomo chums are conflating “truth” with “language” and “knowledge”. Truth is a property of propositions, abstract objects that can be picked out linguistically but are not identical to the language used to do so. You can see this if you reflect that the same claim can be made in different words, or different languages, or even without words – for example, by pointing. You can also see it by reflecting on the repeated claims that “17 is prime” is not objectively true because it’s not if you’re working in base 8 or with Gaussian integers or whatever – and yet, everyone making those claims knew very well what claim I was making, that is, what proposition I intended to pick out.

    Jadehawk@304,

    Yes, it does because saying that one person is more biased than another is still a truth-claim.

    and? no one said there’s no truth, or that truth-claims are impossible. the point is about objective truth.

    Maybe it would be helpful if you said what you meant by “objective truth”, and what sort of “non-objective truth” you believe in. I take it to contrast with “subjective truth” as in “Oh, it’s true for me”, meaning that the person saying it finds whatever they are referring to helpful or comforting.

    Truth is a property of actual or potential claims or assertions about reality.

    i already explained the difference between truth and reality. you wish to continue to ignora that, that’s your choice.

    If you choose to ignore the distinction I drew between truth and reality in the very extract you quote, that’s your choice, but I’ll repeat it once more for you: truth is a property of actual or potential claims or assertions about reality. I am therefore saying quite explicitly that it is distinct from reality: a claim about X is not the same as X.

    If modernists had thought that, clearly they would have seen science and mathematics as pointless, as they would have believed they already knew everything.

    this is nonsense, since science and mathematics is how modernity believes it knows objective reality.

    It’s you talking nonsense here. If you believe you already know objective reality, clearly there would be no point in investigation to find out more about it.

    “I am a mammal” is an exact and objectively true statement, but not a complete description of me.

    it’s a definitionally true statement, the same way “all bachelors are single” is true.

    Well no, it is not definitionally true in the same way, because it is not true as a consequence of the meaning of the terms: if made by an AI or a parrot, for example, it would be false. But set that aside. The statement “I am more massive than a plutonium atom” is an exact and objectively true statement, not definitionally true, but again, not a complete description of me – and my point here was simply that “exact” does not imply “complete” and hence that “incomplete” does not imply “inexact” or “not objectively true”.

    Yes, I am being a smart-ass, but it is hard not to be contemptuous of some of the silliness on display in this thread. – williamberry@329

    I agree: yours being the prime example. You have presented no arguments whatsoever, simply misrepresented and sneered. That you are unable to understand that “17 is prime” can be (and is) an objective fact even though numbers are not Platonic ideals existing in some higher reality, is sad, but that you should misrepresent my view is plain dishonest. It is an objective fact, or objectively true, because it is not a matter of convention or human choice. Groups of 17 objects cannot divide, or be divided, into smaller groups all containing equal numbers of objects, the individual objects retaining their individuality, whatever we think about it, and could not be so divided, even before there were any people to think.

  320. consciousness razor says

    and yet, everyone making those claims knew very well what claim I was making, that is, what proposition I intended to pick out.

    And yet, it’s a proposition you intended to pick out. Why you want to know that particular truth, what interests you about it, why you’re chopping up bits of the truth that particular way instead of some other way — that’s all very subjective, and it does make a difference (to us, not reality, because it doesn’t care).

    It’s you talking nonsense here. If you believe you already know objective reality, clearly there would be no point in investigation to find out more about it.

    How we go about investigating is part of the problem. What do you mean by “more,” if you’re not assuming you already know something about The Way Reality Really Truly Is?

    The statement “I am more massive than a plutonium atom” is an exact and objectively true statement, not definitionally true, but again, not a complete description of me – and my point here was simply that “exact” does not imply “complete” and hence that “incomplete” does not imply “inexact” or “not objectively true”.

    There cannot be single atoms which make such a statement (or any group of atoms less than or equal to the mass of plutonium, if you really want to nitpick on that). So in what sense is that distinct from something that’s “true by definition”? It’s contingent on empirical facts about the world (the nature of atoms, massiveness, intelligence), so it’s physically rather than logically necessary, but the same goes for “all bachelors are unmarried.”

  321. Mark Pawelek says

    Then we need the postmodern critique

    There is no possible postmodern critique. Deconstruction is not a kind of critique. Deconstruction is tool designed to dethrone critique. It seeks to disarm critique by uncovering what critique represses. A critique must necessarily repress because the very act of focusing, saying something and speaking from the standpoint of a better way of doing, is and must be repression; even if that’s only the repression of poetics.

  322. Alan Nixon says

    From my perspective this is not entirely correct. Although it may have an extreme consequence of undermining its own statements, thus undermining critique, if taken in a less extreme way it provides a critique to the objectivist and positivist (and often consequently ethnocentric and destructive of possible perspective differences in the construction of knowledge) certainties embedded in modernist thought. It was a critique of the methods and frames of modernity, hence the terms, post-modernity, high modernity and reflexive modernity (reflexive in that we turn our gaze onto modernity itself) are often attached to the process and thought paradigm we are calling postmodernism. Deconstruction is only one part of the postmodern paradigm. In simplified terms it critiques the idea that there can be only one meaning to a text (any language, it does not have to be written).

    The process of deconstruction identifies the other possible readings of the text, by attempting to reveal underlying assumptions that the text is based upon. What are the hidden political motivations behind the text? Hence we can end up at a critique of the political assumptions underlying particular ‘scientific’ programs. Eugenics and Intelligent Design are prime examples of a supposed ‘science’ that can be exposed by analyzing the texts of these movements for underlying political content. This was actually used against ID in the Dover trial as it was partly their use of the word “creationism” in original documents and its poor replacement in latter documents that helped to expose the hidden creationist assumptions in ID (this was not the only evidence, or lack of, of course, but it contributed). Though even without this very obvious mistake, the text could have been deconstructed to similar effect in my opinion. It is worthy of note that the frame that was used to make this judgement could also itself be deconstructed, as it relies on assumptions about differences between ‘religion’ and ‘science’. Not saying that it isn’t a legitimate difference, but there are certainly political elements to this framing.

    Politics, individual biases and perspectives invade our ability to be objective or to see ‘the world as it is’, regularly, or even perhaps inevitably. Through being more reflexive about this inherent part of human existence we are critiquing the process of science and knowledge creation in a way that should eventually make it more accurate and ethical. Authority is a large part of science, so it is useful to pay attention to when such authority figures may have alternative motivations for their research. All of us will probably have different figures in mind when we think about this, largely due to our own political or theoretical biases. I personally think that this is a critique and one that the world needed. However, in saying that I also get your point about it ‘uncovering what critique oppresses’. Isn’t it also a critique to expose those who are using critique as a form of repression or oppression?

  323. says

    Alan Nixon, this thread is 17 days old, and in Pharyngula terms, fairly old, considering the wealth of things which have been posted in the meantime. I’d hope, before commenting any more, that you would please read all the comments, which contain many an argument, and pretty much every perspective possible.

  324. Alan Nixon says

    If you look through my posts you’ll notice that I was commenting after I had read all of the other posts. My original comment was 2 days after the original post. With the exception of 2 posts to Anchor and Ichthyic, I have only replied to people that have quoted me or directed their comment at me. Mark Pawelek’s comment was directed at one of my earlier comments, as the quote indicates, so is again, a reply. To me this is not only good etiquette, but also provides closure for myself. Have I broken some rule here? I have to ask why you have directed this at me when Mark was also commenting to a ’17 day old’ thread and only replying to one of the very last posts, why is my contribution less welcome? Considering how polite I’ve been to the rather aggressive and sometimes insulting posts on this forum, (which I’m aware of as a standard here and decided to dismiss politely) I feel an explanation would be nice. Thanks.

  325. Alan Nixon says

    Thanks Caine, I understand these things get heated and I appreciate your honesty. Looking back through my posts, I’m not completely innocent either, overstreching some things, pointing the finger at times, some passive aggressiveness…human, after all ;-)