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Sep 09 2013

Scientism and postmodernism

I wrote recently about Stephen Pinker’s efforts to defend scientism, where he argued that although the use of the word is not consistent and is often used as an epithet, it deserves to be defended because there is a positive meaning that can be salvaged.

There are some problems with his essay. One is that he starts out with a partial straw man.

Scientism, in this good sense, is not the belief that members of the occupational guild called “science” are particularly wise or noble. On the contrary, the defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods, are explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable.

I doubt that even the most enthusiastic defender of science is suffering under the delusion that scientists are particularly wise or noble. Those of us in science are only too painfully aware that we are as much captive to human failings as those outside science. However he is right that the methods of open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods, while by no means guaranteeing avoidance of error, are fundamental characteristics of scientific practice that are worth emulating in any field.

But apart from the scientism issue, Pinker does give a good description of how science has been, or should be, influential in shaping our general worldview. Thanks to science there are brute facts that we know now about the world that earlier people did not know and that have radically transformed our thinking, though some still cling to the old views.

The moral worldview of any scientifically literate person—one who is not blinkered by fundamentalism—requires a radical break from religious conceptions of meaning and value.

To begin with, the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures—their theories of the origins of life, humans, and societies—are factually mistaken. We know, but our ancestors did not, that humans belong to a single species of African primate that developed agriculture, government, and writing late in its history. We know that our species is a tiny twig of a genealogical tree that embraces all living things and that emerged from prebiotic chemicals almost four billion years ago. We know that we live on a planet that revolves around one of a hundred billion stars in our galaxy, which is one of a hundred billion galaxies in a 13.8-billion-year-old universe, possibly one of a vast number of universes. We know that our intuitions about space, time, matter, and causation are incommensurable with the nature of reality on scales that are very large and very small. We know that the laws governing the physical world (including accidents, disease, and other misfortunes) have no goals that pertain to human well-being. There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers—though the discrepancy between the laws of probability and the workings of cognition may explain why people believe there are. And we know that we did not always know these things, that the beloved convictions of every time and culture may be decisively falsified, doubtless including some we hold today.

In other words, the worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science. Though the scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values, they certainly hem in the possibilities. By stripping ecclesiastical authority of its credibility on factual matters, they cast doubt on its claims to certitude in matters of morality. The scientific refutation of the theory of vengeful gods and occult forces undermines practices such as human sacrifice, witch hunts, faith healing, trial by ordeal, and the persecution of heretics. The facts of science, by exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, force us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet. For the same reason, they undercut any moral or political system based on mystical forces, quests, destinies, dialectics, struggles, or messianic ages. And in combination with a few unexceptionable convictions— that all of us value our own welfare and that we are social beings who impinge on each other and can negotiate codes of conduct—the scientific facts militate toward a defensible morality, namely adhering to principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings. This humanism, which is inextricable from a scientific understanding of the world, is becoming the de facto morality of modern democracies, international organizations, and liberalizing religions, and its unfulfilled promises define the moral imperatives we face today.

But the success of science has its price and we have to be willing to pay it.

A major goad for the recent denunciations of scientism has been the application of neuroscience, evolution, and genetics to human affairs. Certainly many of these applications are glib or wrong, and they are fair game for criticism: scanning the brains of voters as they look at politicians’ faces, attributing war to a gene for aggression, explaining religion as an evolutionary adaptation to bond the group. Yet it’s not unheard of for intellectuals who are innocent of science to advance ideas that are glib or wrong, and no one is calling for humanities scholars to go back to their carrels and stay out of discussions of things that matter.

So far, so good. But I found his diagnosis of the state of humanities to be somewhat simplistic, consisting mostly of a rant against the influence of postmodernism similar to, though not as bad as, the broadside leveled against the humanities in the 1997 book Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt where the authors suggested that there was practically an organized effort by faculty in the humanities to discredit science, and somehow managed to conflate that supposed attack with left-wing politics.

Pinker does not go so far:

The humanities are the domain in which the intrusion of science has produced the strongest recoil. Yet it is just that domain that would seem to be most in need of an infusion of new ideas. By most accounts, the humanities are in trouble. University programs are downsizing, the next generation of scholars is un- or underemployed, morale is sinking, students are staying away in droves. No thinking person should be indifferent to our society’s disinvestment from the humanities, which are indispensable to a civilized democracy.

Diagnoses of the malaise of the humanities rightly point to anti-intellectual trends in our culture and to the commercialization of our universities. But an honest appraisal would have to acknowledge that some of the damage is self-inflicted. The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness. And they have failed to define a progressive agenda.

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.

The most heated but fruitless debates tend to be over the merits of labels, when there is little understanding or consensus of what the labels represent.

26 comments

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  1. 1
    machintelligence

    Count me as another who favors scientism over postmodernism. Both are unpopular because they tell us things we would rather not know. We may never be able to derive morality from logical or scientific principles, but we can describe it and see the pathways where it could have evolved (oh no! the dreaded evolutionary psychology).
    Even pragmatism (science is true because it works) fails to favor the truth when it runs up against human nature. Look at the thought experiment proposed by Daniel Dennett with the gold and silver armies:
    The gold army is well trained and well equipped, and believes that God favors their cause so that if they are killed they will ascend to paradise.
    The silver army is equally well trained and equipped, but is composed entirely of economists. They are buying insurance and planning exit strategies, both individual and by group.
    Which would you rather have on your side?
    Even if they are deluded, most of us would take the gold army, thank you very much. Truth is no virtue here.

  2. 2
    Raging Bee

    The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness.

    Which “humanities,” exactly, is he referring to here? And how much of this “disaster” is real, and how much of it is nothing but gross exaggeration?

    And they have failed to define a progressive agenda.

    Which of the “humanities,” exactly, are responsible for defining a progressive agenda? I like science fiction that reflects a progressive agenda, but is that really a duty of SF writers?

  3. 3
    Raging Bee

    The silver army is equally well trained and equipped, but is composed entirely of economists. They are buying insurance and planning exit strategies, both individual and by group.

    That kinda sounds like the US Army that won WW-II: people who wanted to survive, go home, and get all those GI Bill benefits they were promised when they signed up — but who still somehow managed to stay in their ranks long enough, and fight ruthlessly enough, to crush the German and Japanese armies who were fighting for their own land and “way of life.”

    Methinks Dennett’s “thought experiment” suffers from an “excluded middle” fallacy.

  4. 4
    M can help you with that.

    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.

    There’s a bit less conflict if postmodernism is interpreted as referring primarily to thought and language (or, put the other way around, when postmodernism sticks to referring to thought and language). That’s where a lot of the basics of the trend came from, really — the idea that representation (images, languages, concepts) will never be a perfect representation of reality (or the Real, which translates out of jargon to basically the same thing), and that languages and styles of thinking might get in the way more often than is obvious. For the postmodernists who don’t stumble all over their misunderstandings of science, science can actually be refreshing — it’s a formalized way of taking representations of reality and then banging them against a wall until they break, then building new representations that fit the contours of reality a little bit better. And from the science side, postmodernism can be a habit of remembering that the equations I use to describe reality are certainly not the same thing as reality itself — though I can still get excited when there seems to be an unexpected degree of correspondence between the two.

    Really, though, postmodernism and poststructuralism are much better off focusing on language, art, and literature, with forays into ideology and forms of communication generally. Because there, the possibilities are actually fun.

  5. 5
    Marcus Ranum

    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.

    Yes, they blame the postmodernists, but really they should blame the ancient skeptics such as Sextus Empiricus (and his later student, David Hume) — that’s what comes of dismissing philosophy: you mistake the linguistic nihilism of Derrida for something new.

  6. 6
    Chiroptera

    They also didn’t turn on the civilian government and install a military junta to ruthlessly impose their fascist gold army ideology on the rest of the country. Which is why I wouldn’t trust a gold army of hard core ideologues.

    Yeah, there are some problems with this particular thought experiment.

  7. 7
    robertschenck

    Isn’t he also mis-identifying scientism? “open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods” aren’t strictly scientific methods or practices, heck the humanities also use open debate, critical review, &c. And ‘double-blind’ only applies to experiments, and often scientific experiments aren’t blind in anyway, least of all double-blind. In fact double-blinds are probably more common in the ‘soft’ sciences, the ones more closely allied with the humanities, like sociology and psychology, than with the ‘hard’ sciences.
    He seems to really just be saying ‘here are some good practices. Hey, aren’t they pretty darned good?’.

  8. 8
    M can help you with that.

    that’s what comes of dismissing philosophy: you mistake the linguistic nihilism of Derrida for something new.

    …and linguistic nihilism for general nihilism. (Not that most readers of Derrida shouldn’t be excused for not being able to tell the difference — excessive jargon and excessive fondness for obscure in-jokes are not a great combination.) As much as I can’t stand Slavoj Žižek, at least that’s a distinction he (sometimes) gets right.

  9. 9
    wtfwhateverd00d

    “I doubt that even the most enthusiastic defender of science is suffering under the delusion that scientists are particularly wise or noble. ”

    One of the loudest arguments heard in discussions of global climate change is the Big Oil Money versus the noble poorly funded poorly paid scientist doing her research for the benefit of all person kind.

    I would rephrase your paragraph:

    “I doubt that even the most enthusiastic, well informed, intellectually honest, defender of science is suffering under the delusion that scientists are particularly wise or noble. ”

    But 95% of the people involved in this discussion are neither well informed nor intellectually honest — my experience is that “both” sides support the science that fits their agenda and ignores the science that opposes that agenda.

    I see left wing science denial in many places:

    GMO foods
    Nuclear energy production
    Domestic Violence research
    Evolutionary Psychology
    Green Energy
    Global Climate Change
    Marijuana
    Big Pharma
    Homeopathy

    I see right wing science denial in many places too:

    Evolution
    GMO foods
    Nuclear energy production
    Green Energy
    Global Climate Change
    Contraceptives, Emergency Birth Control, and Morning After Pills — Abortion
    Marijuana
    Big Pharma

  10. 10
    EnlightenmentLiberal

    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.

    A slight correction. I think rationalwiki puts it better than I:
    http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Thomas_Kuhn

    Because Kuhn argued that scientific progress is in some ways constrained by cultural, technological, etc. factors, his work is often misinterpreted to mean “everything’s made up and the points don’t matter.” In response to charges of relativism, Kuhn added a postscript to the second edition of SSR. He noted that while he believed that while science isn’t completely progressive, there are ways to test paradigms against current data such that their chronological order and usefulness in problem-solving could be determined. As Kuhn wrote: “That is not a relativist’s position, and it displays the sense in which I am a convinced believer in scientific progress.”[2] If you’re looking for someone who thinks there is absolutely no means of demarcating legitimate scientific methodology, Paul Feyerabend is your guy.

    Also, if you think that there is no way to measure the advancement of correctness of scientific theories, or if you think that scientific theories on average are not advancing, then you are wrong, and this is a huge part of the problem that most scientists have with postmodernism.

  11. 11
    Rutee Katreya

    Yeaaaaaaaahhhh, that’s the huge glaring flaw with Pinker’s essay. We’ve kinda been using what works from science for decades, or at least those of us in history have. Fuck, we’ve been using empiricism for centuries before the sciences were codified. We’re not exactly amateurs. But listen to the Important Man with his Important IDeas for us all.

  12. 12
    bad Jim

    Even electrons, which are very sensitive about being observed, don’t need double-blind experiments.

  13. 13
    brian faux

    ” US Army that won WW-II”
    I suppose that the Russians did the dying for them.

  14. 14
    doublereed

    Honestly it just sounds like he wanted an excuse to pick on the humanities.

    I don’t really understand why people keep complaining about the humanities.

  15. 15
    Nick Gotts

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

  16. 16
    Larry Tanner

    Mano,

    Please forgive the shameless plug, but I am so glad you are addressing this topic. I recently posted “A Defense of Postmodernism” and would love to know what you think: http://www.skepticink.com/atheistintermarried/2013/09/01/a-defense-of-postmodernism.

    Best,
    Larry

  17. 17
    Marcus Ranum

    I do think it’s objectively true that 17 is a prime number

    Because you come from a culture in which that’s a given.

    the earth is billions of years old

    Because you come from a culture that measures time in gross units of planetary orbits.

    that human activities are affecting the climate.

    Because you come from a culture that reifies the climate into a thing, then observes that it is affected.

  18. 18
    Mano Singham

    Larry,

    That’s a good essay. Thanks for letting me know about it.

    I think that the idea that much of what we call knowledge is contingent and socially constructed makes sense. What I struggle with is whether all knowledge is of this nature or if there can be at least some objective truths. And more importantly, how would we know the difference between statements that are objectively true and those that are contingent? In which category, for example, is the scientific law that the speed of light is the same for all observers?

    The limitations imposed by language seem to me to be profound.

  19. 19
    EnlightenmentLiberal

    I do think it’s objectively true that 17 is a prime number

    Because you come from a culture in which that’s a given.

    No. It’s objectively true (in the context of ZF) because any reasonable person will come to the same conclusion. That’s the meaning of “objective”.

    the earth is billions of years old

    Because you come from a culture that measures time in gross units of planetary orbits.

    Arbitrary. We can convert to whatever units of time which you wish to use. Furthermore, any reasonable person can change to accommodate a different unit of time measurement. Furthermore, any reasonable person will come to the same conclusion. That’s the meaning of “objective”. (All it takes is the acceptance of the methods and values of formal science and all informal evidence-based reasoning, and that is included in the definition of a “reasonable person”.)

    that human activities are affecting the climate.

    Because you come from a culture that reifies the climate into a thing, then observes that it is affected.

    Do you have anything except arguments from radical translation?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radical_translation
    Quine is simply wrong.

    But really, here’s some of your problems.

    First, we are going to use logic and basic maths. For example, we’re going to use the law of the excluded middle. Logic is not relative to a culture, and if you want to try and argue logically against the use of logic, you have already lost.

    Second, we’re going to form expectations of future sensory experience based on past sensory experience via usual inductive and deductive reasoning. In other words, evidence-based reasoning, including the formal scientific method. If you don’t agree, remember the old adage: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, getting the same result each time, and expecting a different result the next time. By that definition of insanity, we can say that someone who practices science is merely not being insane.

    Finally, we need to do away with radical translation problems. (Ignore the ethical problems for a moment of the following:) Give me any speaker of any culture, or any species. We know that their species arose from evolution by natural selection. Thus, they are going to share a few things of cognition in common. They are going to want to avoid pain. They are capable of forming expectations of future sensory experience based on past sensory experience (e.g. science). With that and only that, I can teach them English. I can teach them English in a similar way that we teach any baby in our culture English. More specifically, I could put the creature in a Skinner Box, and shock it or otherwise give it pain whenever it does not cooperate. Then I can proceed to teach it English. If you think that any radical translation problems remain, then it means that you think the same radical translation problems exist for every member of society in relation to every other member of that society – and if you’re that much of a nihilist, then the conversation is over.

    Thus, any reasonable creature of any culture, and of any species, can be taught what “billions of years” means, can be shown the evidence, and will come to the same conclusions that I have. (Or he’ll find a mistake and I’ll agree with him.) There is no third option.

  20. 20
    EnlightenmentLiberal

    Look Larry. Simple question. Can humans arrive at beliefs about our material shared reality which are more likely right than wrong? Is there a process, a method, an algorithm, which humans can follow which produce results which are concordant with our material shared reality to a high degree of confidence? It does not need to produce correct results every time, merely 90% of the time it is applied. Furthermore, repeated applications of the method must lower the margin of error each time.

    Finally, is evidence-based reasoning, empirical reasoning, and the formal scientific process such a method?

    IMHO, this is the central point of contention under discussion. Can we reliably (to a high degree of confidence) arrive at reliable beliefs that map to our material shared reality? As someone as seemingly educated on this topic Larry, I feel that you already know this. You already know that this is the element of postmodernism to which many scientists object. Because of this, your seeming lack of commitment either way in your paper of postmodernism seems to me to be a purposeful obfuscation. You should be able to do better than that.

    Finally, if you agree with me in the central thesis of this post, then I think I and most scientists recognize your postmodernism as simply popular modern philosophy of science, such as espoused by Popper and Kuhn.

  21. 21
    wtfwhateverd00d

    somewhere a village is happy it gave its idiot a bus ticket.

  22. 22
    Mano Singham

    The fact that 17 is a prime number is based on the axioms of number theory and the problem is that there is no way to prove that the axioms are true or consistent, leaving open the possibility that the result is not objectively true but conditional on the axioms being true and consistent, which we just have to assume. This was Godel’s contribution to mathematics and philosophy

    Calculating that the Earth is billions of years is dependent on a whole constellation of interdependent theories and it has been shown as early as the dawn of the twentieth century by people like Pierre Duhem that it was impossible to prove the truth of each constituent theory independently. So again, the result is dependent on the choices of theories that we accept as true.

    As for human activities affecting the climate, again we cannot prove it to be objectively true for the same reason as the age of the Earth.

    This does not mean that all these are meaningless. They are undoubtedly empirical and reasonable and the theories we depend upon have an enviable record of serving us well. It is highly reasonable to depend on them.

    But that does not mean that we can show they are objectively true.

  23. 23
    Nick Gotts

    No, that 17 was prime was known long before the axioms of number theory were formulated. It was true before there were any human beings, or any other organisms, to know it. It would be true in any possible world, including those without any observers capable of understanding it, and those where all such observers believe it to be false. If you dispute this, kindly provide a factorization of 17 into positive integers greater than 1. That we cannot prove, in the mathematico-logical sense, that the earth is billions of years old or that human activities are affecting the climate, does not in any way, shape or form imply that these things are not objectively true, and to think they are is an elementary confusion between truth, provabilitiy and knowledge.

    They are undoubtedly empirical and reasonable and the theories we depend upon have an enviable record of serving us well. It is highly reasonable to depend on them.

    But that does not mean that we can show they are objectively true.

    If there is no objective truth, what is the status of the numerous fact claims you are making here, and throughout your response?

  24. 24
    Nick Gotts

    Sorry: “to think that they are is an elementary confusion” should be “to think that it does is an elementary confusion”.

  25. 25
    Nick Gotts

    You’re apparently confused between the processes that led me to believe certain things, and the question of whether those things are, in fact, true.

    What is the status of the fact claims you are making in your comment?

  26. 26
    Mano Singham

    To take the last question, I cannot prove my ‘fact claims’ to be true in any absolute sense but only within the constraints of whatever system it is embedded in. Most of the time there is broad consensus about that system so that its assumptions do not need to be articulated and seem invisible and thus the claims seem ‘obviously’ true.

    As to the primes, the entire system of numbers that we use is a system based on the Peano axioms. All the properties of numbers including addition, subtraction, are derived from those axioms. They seem to be ‘obviously’ true but to prove them we need to use those axioms and the truth of those axioms and their consistency have to be just assumed and cannot be proven.

    I cannot factor 17 because that cannot be done within the Peano system. Even if I construct an alternative system of numbers, the two systems would be incommensurable.

  1. 27
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