Post-modernism vs. Universalism vs. Collectivism


Since I just mentioned the boogey-word, post-modernism, here’s a terrifically good overview of the subject by Peter Coffin.

He sets it up in an interesting way, that there is a view that there is an absolute, knowable truth called Universalism that is a hallmark of fundamentalist religion (and also, unfortunately, is becoming increasingly common among proponents of atheism and skepticism), and it is opposed by a methodology of questioning, of being skeptical of universal truths, and doing your damnedest to tease apart the factors behind that belief. That methodology is post-modernism. It is hated by people who want to claim possession of an absolute, objective truth, whether it’s the Pope or the Grand Poobah of the Moment of organized atheism/skepticism.

Interestingly, he also points out that modern scientists generally dislike universalism — it’s why we are averse to claiming that we have a “proof” of something — and accept a collectivist version of truth, where we provisionally accept a claim if it has consilience among a substantial number of observers and observations. Science is fundamentally post-modern.

<cue video of heads exploding all over the youtube atheist community.>

Comments

  1. says

    Postmodernism seems to refer to a bunch of different things, so I’m unsympathetic to arguments either against it, or in favor. I don’t really know what Peter Coffin is on about, but I reject it as too universalist.

    In the minds of most skeptics, “postmodernism” seems to specifically refer to the body of work criticized by Sokal–an anti-scientific academic movement in 80s and 90s. While I think Sokal’s criticisms were largely correct, he isn’t really criticizing postmodernism as a whole–and how could he, given all the different things that fall under that label? Furthermore, hardly any of these skeptics seem to check whether this anti-scientific postmodern movement is still around–it’s been 20 years since the Sokal hoax, you know?

  2. Andrew David says

    I admit that I’m baffled by postmodernism. I understand the argument that our internal models of the universe are never guaranteed to match the facts of the universe, but the notion that there is no universal truth sounds nihilistic and overreaching.

  3. says

    In 2010 I attended a meeting on the history of genomics (I was supposed to give a participant’s account of the history of numerical work on phylogenies). I realized after a bit that a substantial number of participants were postmodernists. The title of the meeting was “Writing Genomics” which implied that it wasn’t a matter of what actually happened but that there were just different stories. I was prepared for a fight — if someone argued that science was just storytelling and no story was better than any other, I was ready to wonder aloud why they trusted the roof of the building not to fall in on them.

    But no such argument happened. Although the most extreme of the postmodernists seemed like parodies of themselves, apt to say things like “We must wonder why this sentence is true”, in the end, the kinds of history that postmodernists and nonpostmodernists (“modernists”?) did wasn’t all that different. One nonpostmodernists commented privately to me that it seemed to him that the most extreme postmodernists knew that they had lost the struggle and were coping with that.

    The insights that many of our views are dependent on our backgrounds, cultures, and political positions is important. The more extreme view that science is just storytelling that makes no progress needs to be rejected — but I wonder whether it is very prevalent these days.

  4. KG says

    Interestingly, he also points out that modern scientists generally dislike universalism — it’s why we are averse to claiming that we have a “proof” of something

    That’s because so many scientists have accepted a kind of “vulgar Popperism”. Science frequently proves things (e.g. human beings and chimpanzees have a common ancestor, there are multiple smaller bodies in orbit around Jupiter, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas…); what it can’t prove are universal generalizations.

    — and accept a collectivist version of truth, where we provisionally accept a claim if it has consilience among a substantial number of observers and observations.

    That’s an amazingly naive confusion between truth and knowledge.

  5. says

    #4: There are people who hide behind postmodernism to babble nonsense. But there are also people who hide behind science to do the same.

    #5: Which is why scientists avoid making claims of possessing truth.

  6. doubtthat says

    Man, I watched that video and followed a couple of links. 2 thoughts:

    1) Pleasantly surprised that there seem to be a good number of folks pushing back at the horrifying proliferation of anti-feminist, alt-right atheists on YouTube.

    But…

    2) Holy crap. The ease with which these “skeptics” throw around terms like “Cultural Marxism” (literally a term relating to a Nazi conspiracy theory – actual Nazi conspiracy theory – I mean, from the actual Nazis…) is just stunning.

    It’s like misogyny is the gateway drug to wholesale insanity. These douche nozzles all go down the same route: it starts with someone (a woman) criticizing them, and 5 videos later they’re distinguish “Jews” from “International Jewery.”

    Just a disturbing group of people. I really did not anticipate this and was one of those naive folks that thought social justice was a necessary result of promoting atheism and skepticism. Probably the single thing I’ve been MOST incorrect about in my life (political theory category).

  7. consciousness razor says

    there is a view that there is an absolute, knowable truth called Universalism

    There are various ways to interpret this….

    1) There is a truth
    2) There is an absolute truth.
    3) There is a knowable truth.
    4) There is an absolute, knowable truth.
    5) There is an absolutely knowable truth.
    6+ will be left as an exercise for the reader. Please insert any arbitrary thing you like.

    it is opposed by a methodology of questioning, of being skeptical of universal truths

    A universal truth sounds to me like a truth which is universally true, one which applies to the whole universe — a truth about physics for instance, if you believe anything in physics is true. If you’re skeptical that there are truths of that sort (not that we know them), well, uhhhh…. Could you even make sense of the idea that there is no such thing? First explain how that could be coherent, then give a good reason for believing it. (But not believing it too hard, lest you fall into the many dangerous traps of believing it absolutely, believing it is something that may be known, or would be known if you knew it, etc.)

    That methodology is post-modernism. It is hated by people who want to claim possession of an absolute, objective truth,

    But possession of something is different from there being something. I don’t have a dog (as a pet or in any other sense), and there are dogs. Those are both what I would call “facts,” and you probably shouldn’t be terribly skeptical about either of them. Even if you are skeptical about such things, which I’ll accept if that’s actually the case, they are both true and I know that. I don’t know if you’d count them as “absolute” or “objective,” but if that adds something worrisome, then let’s go for it: it’s an absolute and objective fact that I have no dogs and that there are dogs. I also think I know those facts. Let’s suppose I want to claim that. What do we do then?

    I have no particular hatred for certain sorts of postmodernism (which have nothing to do with the rambling below), but I’d like to have a clear understanding of exactly what we are and are not buying into here, along with what we’re supposed to get out of the deal.

    – Should we be anti-realists about everything, scientific and otherwise?
    – Should we hold realists beliefs, but hold them tentatively and skeptically and with lots of pointed questions?
    – Is it a vague, confused grab-bag of many different ideas that get lumped together as if they were equivalent?
    – Is it an assertion that we (scientists?) should only make epistemic claims, not metaphysical ones?
    – Is it an assertion that there is nothing to make such claims about?
    – Is a grand narrative being expressed in all of this, and should we be skeptical of it?

    Here’s a transcript of some of video dude’s incoherent rambling:

    Postmodernism really helped us, I think, as a world, shed universalism. Universalism is kind of the thing that it seems like Greg thinks is good; but being as he’s an atheist skeptic, I literally have no idea why.

    Religion is a universalist belief. You believe that there is only one way that things can be, and that thing is unquestionable. That’s not changeable. It’s not something that is ever going to be different. That’s exactly how things are.

    And postmodernism is an approach that encourages you not to think that way. It encourages you to question. It encourages you to ask “what is going on here? Please tell me why we’re doing this to ourselves.” Now, if we hadn’t shed universalism, we wouldn’t be in a position where religion, for instance, isn’t as extreme as it is. It used to be really, really extreme. The old testament is kind of a list of things that you’re allowed to stone people for, and that’s not great.

    People have moved on to a more peaceful version of Judaism and Christianity, may not themselves believe in postmodernism. What they do believe in is that they don’t have to be that.

    [Written on-screen: “(Context: postmodernism didn’t exist in the enlightenment.)”]

    They don’t have to be violent in order to believe in God or Jesus or whatever. Which is good, because I don’t like the idea of, like, people who cheat on each other being allowed to murder each other. That’s not good. It’s bad. “Hey, that guy seems guy. Good reason to stone him. I’m gonna stone him. God says I can.”

    The fact that people reject that version of religion is that they are, somewhat, choosing their own religion. They’re choosing what to believe, what not to believe. They’re customizing it. They’ve done this, because they’ve said to themselves — they look in the mirror, they say, “Do I support the stoning of women? Nnnnneeeh. I don’t.” So in deconstructing their own faith, they’ve choosen [sic] to live a more peaceful version of Judaism or Christianity. Now, I’m not saying everybody does, because there are extremists in every religion, and [*finger twirling*] that includes Islam because, yeaaahhh….

    But there’s two really big problems with this. The first one is that in deconstructing universalism, in questioning objective truth, we’ve sort of opened a can of worms. We have said to ourselves, “alright, well, there isn’t a universal truth.” Which is true by the way. There is not a universal truth. There is not objective fact. These things don’t exist. And let me tell you why. The universe itself wouldn’t exist if humanity never existed, however facts — facts would not exist. Facts are entirely human in concept.

    The second problem is that we live in an economic system which benefits explicitly from the exploitation of people. You cannot do well in capitalism without exploiting people in some way. Okay?

    Fact is a human creation. Fact is a construct, created by humans. Facts can’t be universalist. Whether the difference in perception is simply optic nerves that don’t work as well as some other person’s optic nerves, people see things differently. People perceive things differently. It’s never going to be exactly the same between two people, even if on a base level they agree on what they are seeing.

    Now, here’s the thing. Being there is no universal truth, we have to understand that the best we could do is collective truth. So the two people with different perspectives agreeing on what they’re seeing is collective truth: informed opinions that align based on evidence. Now, if that sounds vaguely similar to the scientific method, it … it is. Science is collectivism.

    The scientific method is a standardized approach, attempting to make sense through repeatable experiments, controls, variables, peer review and skepticism. Scientific consensus is evidence-based, it’s standardized, and most importantly, it’s collectivist. In understanding that we can’t just appeal to authority with our own lives, that universalism is something that might actually be kind of dangerous if we let it sit, we came to the conclusion that there isn’t universalism. And whether or not people will agree with this, this is kind of the prevalent philosophical underpining [sic] of how things work now. We don’t really think universalism is a thing. And just in case you’re confused, it’s because it’s not a thing.

    Capitalism exacerbates individualism. Capitalism absolutely benefits from the idea that people are only concerned with what’s going on in their world. So in our deconstruction of universalism, instead of replacing it with collectivism, we replaced it with hyper-individualism — like way, way over-the-top individualism. Capitalism wants desperately for you to live in your own little world, because instead of getting the infinite choices that “Armoured Skeptic” claims that postmodernism gives you — which is not true. Postmodernism doesn’t give you choices; it allows you to critique other things and find the core of it, to find whether or not it is something that you agree with, disagree with, that is valid, invalid, etc. Capitalism controls the choices.

    I just got tired after that. (True story!) I don’t know where to begin. Just quoting it is enough to refute most of that garbage, and the rest may not even be worth bothering about.

    “Terrifically bad,” PZ. You meant terrifically bad … right?

  8. zibble says

    He sets it up in an interesting way, that there is a view that there is an absolute, knowable truth called Universalism that is a hallmark of fundamentalist religion

    That’s… completely ass-backwards.

    Fundamentalists don’t think the universe is knowable, they think the universe is fundamentally ineffable, they just have a special connection to the guy in charge of it all.

    Universalism is just the completely obvious conclusion you’re forced to make if you simply have the humility to acknowledge that “reality” is something that predates flawed human perceptions of it.

  9. consciousness razor says

    I’ve found a typo in my transcript:
    That’s not good. It’s bad. “Hey, that guy seems gay. Good reason to stone him. I’m gonna stone him. God says I can.”

    May as well point out the obvious, while I’m quoting it again. He’s saying it’s bad. It isn’t good.

    That’s not “I don’t know whether or not it’s bad.” That’s not “there’s nothing to say about whether or not it’s bad.” That’s not “it’s impossible to answer whether it’s really bad.” That’s not “nobody can know anything.” And whatever the fuck it is, it’s also not a whole lot of other shit, like dogmatism, authoritarianism, anti-skepticism, etc., which gets conflated in blatantly sloppy-as-fuck, meandering, ahistorical discussions like this.

    He’s just fucking asserting that it’s bad. And there isn’t any serious question which anybody can pose that he’s certainly right about that. So, sure, I will grant that he managed to get that one thing correct, at least for a moment.

  10. martin50 says

    /Consilience./
    –You sent me beyond my American Heritage into the Oxford English Dictionary.
    Love the etymology of the word, though: the image of things jumping together.

  11. Gordon Davisson says

    Andrew David @ 3: I’ve also never really gotten the hang of postmodernism, and actually Peter’s video really bugged me because he says (at 5:40) that “there is not a universal truth” … and then goes on to make a lot of statements that seem to be claims of universal truth! But he also recommended a video by Gwen_No_Fear, which is more detailed (but IMO spent more time ripping apart “Armored Skeptic”‘s video than actually explaing postmodernism), which had this incredibly helpful comment in the description:

    EDIT: I use the phrase “objective truth” at around the 20:45 mark when I mean to refer to objective reality. I got a bit lost in this video by responding to Greg using his words, which were in fact “objective truth,” but if you aren’t familiar with the fact that postmodernists believe in an objective reality despite not believing in an objective truth (truths and facts are in your head, the world outside is not, etc.) then it sounds like the social sciences don’t care about any kinds of facts or truth at all, which isn’t true. Greg is either using this nuance to mislead his audience or he’s tripped over it even worse than I have.

    Does that make more sense to you? It certainly did to me.

  12. psychomath says

    Well, maybe it would be useful to look at one particular postmodernist thinker and see what this style of thought and discourse can offer. I am a fan of Michel Foucault, though he refused the designation of postmodernist. For me, what he offers is a description of the way academic discourse frames reality, and creates identities (e.g. The Madman, The Homosexual). He is particularly interested in how discourse interacts with Power –power over bodies, power over identities. Many of his books are also just plain fascinating intellectual histories.

    If this sounds interesting, I recommend the sequence of:

    Madness and Civilization
    His first major work, which examines the creation of “madness” as a conceptual object in Europe, and criticism of History as a discipline. Quite accessible to those without a philosophical background.

    Archeology of Knowledge
    His explanation of his method for creating historical discourse. Rather dense and dry, but thoroughly explains his approach and his conceptualization of academic discourse.

    Discipline and Punish
    His greatest work, in my opinion. A history of prisons in France. Difficult book, but very rewarding.

    History of Sexuality
    Three volumes on the creation of sexual identities in Europe. Very understandable if you have understood his earlier works.

    This is not to slight his other books, The Order of Things in particular, but that is an extremely difficult book (or it was for me), so I recommend it follow after The Archeology of Knowledge if you try it.

    Anyway, I have had a great many insights from postmodernist thinkers, and encourage anyone who enjoys critical thought to explore some writers close to their area of interest. Each thinker is different, so no one is truly representative of the whole. The thing is, these thinkers are trying to get out from under modernist thought, so sometimes it can be very difficult to understand them if you aren’t familiar with the issues. There are good wikis out there if you run across something you don’t get at first. Have fun!

  13. consciousness razor says

    Does that make more sense to you? It certainly did to me.

    Claiming it’s just some talk of things which “are in your head” at least escapes being palpably absurd, at least some of the time…. But look, all that’s been done here is that somebody has told you that they’ve decided to use a couple of words differently. That’s not an Earth-shaking discovery or a methodology or any of the things it’s made out to be. So what’s the deal?

    I have a real issue with thinking that a vague deepity (or a clown car full of them, if that’s being offered) gets us anywhere which is supposed to be better than where we started. This is somehow equivalent to skepticism and scientific methodology and the scientific consensus, something that has been established by the philosophical community, and it is an important lesson to be learned, and maybe it is also a useful perspective to take about all manner of things, except of course in all of the ways it isn’t useful. It has saved us from the claws of religious violence, has something or other to do with capitalism, is sometimes universalism and collectivism and both and neither and everything in between, whatever those words even mean. But it’s so much more than all of that, because we’re really just getting started here. It comes under many different names, takes many different forms, can confuse anyone with a handful of words then immediately do it again with a few more, and has helped the whole world in so many marvelously ineffable and impossibly trivial ways. Or it could do that eventually. Or it must have done so once. But be warned: if you prod it gently, it quickly turns into saying, doing, and being about nothing whatsoever. It’s a very subtle thing, you see, so you have to be extra careful around it….

    I think a clear, precise, coherent, honest, intellectually respectable statement of what the basic thesis is would be helpful. And if it’s anticipated that later on, that will be directly contradicted by countless other statements and actions, as well as any other things which are conventionally taken to be facts and truths and experiences and logical/mathematical derivations and so forth, then it’ll also be helpful to get some kind of guidance about how we should come to terms with that, according to this form of postmodernism, if this is what “the good kind” is supposed to be like.

  14. rrhain says

    There are still post-modernists? If they identify as such, I guess.

    That said, it has been my experience that the defining characteristic of post-modernism is a process that jumps from effects to causes with no intervening logic and no attempt to see if the cause actually resulted in the perceived effect. It’s what allows someone to claim that because they interpreted something in a particular way, then the person who presented it actually meant that. It confuses “could be” with “actually is” and then hypocritically demands that any objection or contradiction to their interpretation is false.

    I had a deep dive into this in my script analysis class. The professor was very clear that there is no one interpretation of a script, but some interpretations are simply wrong. It isn’t that you didn’t have that reaction to the script but rather that you brought your own backstory to it which isn’t actually there in the script. Thus, if you try to make that the focus of the show, nobody is going to get it because nobody else has your personal experience that made you think that way…at least not without a massive amount of suggestion outside the text such as through the set, costuming, and a Director’s Note in the program. And even then, you need to be careful that your vision doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the play and everything the text is saying.

    F’rinstance, Romeo and Juliet is not about suicide. Yeah, it has a suicide in it, but there are three hours and four other acts before we get there and the fact that you have a personal experience regarding suicide isn’t going to be enough. It’s an important part of the show, but there is more to the play than that one scene.

    If po-mo were just a position of questioning assumptions and recognizing that we need to pay attention to our audience and realize that we often (always) have other baggage that comes along with what we say, then I’d be all over it. It is a wonderful thing to be able to say, “I never thought of it that way.” But all too often I hear people insist that because they interpret something that way, then that’s the only way to do so.

  15. KG says

    Which is why scientists avoid making claims of possessing truth. – PZM@6

    This is just garbage. The first counter-example that comes to mind: I know he’s not your favourite person, nor is he mine, but Jerry Coyne is undoubtedly a scientist, and he calls his blog “Why evolution is true”. And here is Neil De Grasse Tyson saying (at just after 2 minutes) that “Science is an entire exercise in finding what is true”, and at around 2:30 talking about “a new emergent truth”. Now you can say you disagree with these scientists – but they are making claims of possessing truth. So, I’d be prepared to bet, do most other scientists when they are not self-consciously “philosophising”.

    It is true that current life-forms evolved from different ones, and are linked by common descent. It is true that HIV causes AIDS and that smoking increases your chances of various cancers, heart disease, COPD… It is true that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. It is true that smallpox is caused by a virus and that vaccination can prevent it. It is true that homeopathic “remedies” are ordinary water. Pretending otherwise is not just ridiculous, it gives completely unnecessary ground to cdesign proponentsists, homeopaths, anti-vaccinators, climate change denialists, the proponents of “alternative facts”.

  16. says

    Great video. Love the dissection and assemblage of ideas, but I’m with Siggy. I mean, oof, isn’t “postmodernism” really just the dumbest foil/strawman/scapegoat, all rolled up into one big nonsensical, meaningless, overburdened word?

    I will say, as I’ve said many times before, the use of “New Age” used to be the go-to tag for spotting the cranks in the crowd (liberal is sort of fading, too) but postmodern continues to do the heavy lifting when you’re looking for the emptiest head among the empty-headed.

  17. springa73 says

    I always thought that postmodernism (before it became a vague term for everything some people don’t like) was a series of claims about how people think and act, not about the physical universe. Post modernists didn’t deny that there was a physical reality that existed regardless of what people thought and did, but they claimed that the way people thought about, perceived, discussed, and interacted with that reality was always filtered through their own biases, to such an extent that it is not possible to have a truly unfiltered, objective view of reality.

  18. ragdish says

    Gravity, water being H2O, the speed of light, appendicitis, etc.. are objective universal facts. No doubt that sociocultural, economic and political forces had roles to play when Newton (and later Einstein) devised their theories of gravity but to say that gravity is therefore not an objective truth? If humanity became extinct then gravity no longer exists as fact? That’s as idiotic as saying that there are goblins in my attic when no one is looking.

    Sorry, PZ, but this video is a fail in selling PoMo. He could have stated that scientists are human within a sociocultural milieu that influences the scientific enterprise. Then full stop! To go beyond that and question the existence of facts is worse than being a fundie.

  19. Matt Cramp says

    I feel like it’s worth mentioning the concept of the half-life of facts here, if only to freak out the people who are absolutely sure there’s an objective truth and that we know it and can describe it. There’s a reason that science classes spend most of their time talking about the structure of the atom by teaching people obviously wrong models of the atom.

    For instance:

    Gravity, water being H2O, the speed of light, appendicitis, etc.. are objective universal facts.

    What about, say, Asperger’s syndrome? Is that an objective, universal fact, or is a way of referring to someone on the autism spectrum that implies, incorrectly, that it’s different to autism?

    The problem here is that words mean things, and what things those words mean is agreed upon and subject to change, and it turns out to change depending on the circumstances. (Ahem, much like the speed of light does.)

  20. duanetiemann says

    Hmmm. If we’re going deny that there is Universal Truth, then we must accept that the absence of Universal Truth can’t be universally true. Hmmm.

  21. says

    #17: I agree that those things are true. Now, how do you know that they are? It wasn’t because you possess a hotline to the absolute. It’s because a consensus was reached from a vast collection of evidence. I think you also agree that if new evidence emerges, you’d be willing to reject prior interpretations in favor of a new collective agreement.

    What it means is that there are shades of meaning to the “truth”. Scientists aren’t using the word in the same sense that, say, Ken Ham is — truth is a much weaker thing in our hands than in theirs. Which is a good thing.

    It doesn’t mean that I think creationism and evolution are on an equal footing when I reject the idea that evolution is ‘true’ in the sense that Ken Ham would use it. It’s provisionally true, open to revision on the basis of new information (but not “revelation”), and we have some robust epistemological standards for what kinds of information would shift our position.

  22. Sastra says

    Unless someone has a solid background in philosophy, it’s dangerous to criticize any philosophical position because it’s a safe bet that there’s far more nuance and complexity involved than what can be picked up in common discourse. That said, in common discourse there are various simplistic pop versions of philosophical theories running around, and I think it’s pretty safe to criticize (or embrace) them as long as you make it clear that this is what your doing.

    “Extremist Pop Pomo” is a thing, we come across it (mostly from the Spiritual and critics of science) — and that’s what atheists and skeptics rightly criticize. So, I suspect, would many if not most philosophers — including the postmodernists. There’s an additional argument to be had over whether extremist pop pomo is just a layman distortion of postmodernism, a fringe branch of it, or deeply rooted in the entire field, but that’s not necessarily the most important argument.

  23. consciousness razor says

    PZ:

    I agree that those things are true. Now, how do you know that they are? It wasn’t because you possess a hotline to the absolute.

    Please just take it one step at a time. You’ve apparently got it in your head that the alternatives are larded up with all sorts of concepts, arguments, delusions, etc. That poisons the well nicely, but the conjunction of every bad thought ever is not something anybody is interested in defending.

    It’s provisionally true, open to revision on the basis of new information (but not “revelation”), and we have some robust epistemological standards for what kinds of information would shift our position.

    But that’s all completely different from “avoid making claims of possessing truth.” You said that’s what scientists do, and you suggested there’s a reason why they avoid it.

    When you describe “a methodology of questioning, of being skeptical of universal truths, and doing your damnedest to tease apart the factors behind that belief,” you’re referring to “factors behind” something else. You somehow “tease apart” those things using various methods. I don’t see how a thought like this, if it has any chance of being intelligible, would be complete without those sorts of things. People can ask how you are deciding those are (some of) the deeper, underlying factors, so let’s hope you’ve got something good to say about that. But at no point should you just deny that they are part of what of science is all about.

    I want to understand things about the world. Let’s say I want to learn about plate tectonics. What does that theory tell us about the world? It tells us things like “the crust of the Earth consists of several large, slow-moving plates.” That’s the basic idea at any rate. If you like, grab an expert who can patch it up, fill in all sorts of details, explain what other things in the world cause it and are correlated with it, etc. That would be nice. Anyway, I think it tells us about true, objective facts, about things which exist and are happening in the world independently of what any particular person thinks. Also, I think the forces responsible for this on Earth would do similar things when conditions are similar, anywhere in the universe. So, there’s apparently something universal to think about here too, when you start asking related questions about that.

    Sure, we can be skeptical of the current theory and see whether there are ways to improve it, recognize that our knowledge about this is limited, our perspectives on the facts may be distorted, simply express some basic honesty and humility about what we do and do not know, etc. But one thing we do know very well is that it isn’t claiming things about my perceptions, other mental phenomena or about any of the contents of my brain — we know there are other special sciences like psychology and neurology, which tell us about those things. It’s also not a philosophy of science position which is telling us how we should go about obtaining knowledge of this or that. It’s not deciding how we could/would/should/must have come up with an idea, in order for it to be properly “scientific,” for us to take it seriously, or for any other reason. That one thing, which is all I’m worried about at the moment, doesn’t tell us a whole lot of stuff — it can be clearly and cleanly articulated, to the best of our ability, before we go about throwing all sorts of other things into the mix which may just add to the confusion.

    Whatever else you might want to say about the facts of plate tectonics or the history of the theory or all of science or anything else, there’s going to be a claim like the one I offered above, if it’s going to answer a perfectly sensible question, a question which happens to have a definite answer and certainly looks to me like it’s objective and knowable. If someone is going to refuse to do that, because they’d rather derail the whole discussion with a million other things that pop into their heads, then they’re not helping me understand the world, which is what I wanted to do.

  24. says

    Sastra @25

    “Extremist Pop Pomo” is a thing, we come across it (mostly from the Spiritual and critics of science) — and that’s what atheists and skeptics rightly criticize. So, I suspect, would many if not most philosophers — including the postmodernists. There’s an additional argument to be had over whether extremist pop pomo is just a layman distortion of postmodernism, a fringe branch of it, or deeply rooted in the entire field, but that’s not necessarily the most important argument.

    This is almost correct. Skeptics criticize some sort of pop version of postmodernism. However, I think it’s wrong to talk about postmodernism as if it’s a single field of study. Postmodernism is cross-disciplinary. Postmodernism refers to many things, including several movements in art, literary criticism, and philosophy. It’s also simply a period in intellectual history, mainly the 20th century. It’s possible to identify some patterns in postmodernist thinking, and “rejection of universalism” is one of those patterns, but this should be taken no more seriously than arguing over the attitudes of millenials.

  25. ragdish says

    Does the color red exist? Is it an objective universal truth? What about to those who are congenitally blind or who were born color blind? Is red therefore a collective truth among only those with intact vision? What about the visual neural pathways that correspond to red? Doesn’t that make red universal? Does red cease to exist when humanity no longer exists?

    I really think the PoMo ideologues have too much in common with O’Brien in Orwell’s 1984 wherein the only truth that matters is the social truth. If society and the Party says 2+2=5, then that collective truth is gospel. I’ll wager that with PoMo you can dissect, deconstruct and disable existing knowledge and convince people that pigs fly.

    PZ, I hope you’ve gandered at this article regarding postmodernism and intelligent design:

    https://msu.edu/~pennock5/research/papers/Pennock_PostmodernSinID.pdf

  26. Vivec says

    @28
    Uh, I’m not sure if you know this, but like, the philosophical issues you’re bringing up to criticize post-modernism pre-date post-modernism by centuries, and are pretty substantial questions about the nature of reality.

    But like, I guess Hume and Berkley were just silly PoMo theorists so w/e.

  27. consciousness razor says

    Vivec, it’s not exactly clear what ragdish’s view is. One sensible idea is that the silly PoMo theorists ought to familiarize themselves with some of that centuries of philosophical work which pre-dated them, in order to say something coherent and/or do something potentially useful with it, not just it toss it all out and start saying silly PoMO crap anyway.

    So, the mere fact that empiricists existed centuries ago (or skeptics thousands of years ago, etc.) and thus pre-dated PoMo theorists …. that doesn’t do a whole lot for me. What, precisely, do the silly PoMo people tell us? The good silly ones, I mean. What do they say? Is there something in any of it that’s worth taking seriously?

    It’d be especially nice if it wasn’t already done better hundreds or thousands of years earlier. Perhaps somebody back then had a problem that they couldn’t solve, and the silly PoMo people have more recently done something sensible to address that. I’d be interested to know if there is anything like that. Or I could just be told again and again that the “good” ones are somewhere out there and like the invisible dragon in Sagan’s garage, without getting anything else.

  28. ragdish says

    My view is that there is an objective reality external to our minds that is ultimately the manifestation of universal laws of physics. Reductionism reigns. The process of science via the scientific method better defines that reality. I agree that social forces influence this process but that does not change the nature of reality. There are many ways to climb a mountain. You can be an asshole and trample on others to get to the top or you can take the other climb via cooperation with your partners. Regardless, none of that changes the reality of the summit. Nonetheless, we hope to achieve a society wherein we all take the latter path to get to the top. IMO, PoMo posits that how you climb (analogous to the social forces in the scientific enterprise) will determine the nature of the summit. This is where I jump off the PoMo train. If this is not the PoMo you are referring to or if I am essentially on the same page as PZ, then please ignore what I’ve stated. BTW, hope the metaphor helps.

  29. Andrew David says

    Gordon Davisson @ 13: Thank you for your response. Yes, that does make more sense, but at the same time it’s kind of infuriating. I had watched that video before, and I watched the video above, too, and in the combined 43+ minutes of postmodernism apologetics I don’t think that either speaker bothered to make that (rather important) point clear. Instead, that second fellow prattled on about Theseus and Borges and Menelaus and tucked that vital bit of data into an edit below the “Show more” link of the video description.

  30. says

    What about the things only exist because of brains? That captures cells and storage of information inside of ganglia or other concentration of cells that do what neurons do. Cells also measure objective reality by themselves before that.

    Or is the multicellular life using symbolic information that we are most interested in? Feelings attached to sensory objects are the tools consciousness uses to wrote to and read from memory.

  31. says

    I think it would be interesting if someone could prove that reality exists outside awareness, perception, and interpretation of it. Proof, mind you, not a performance designed to shock me: Such a performance would only prove to myself that my own sensations would appear to be momentarily hidden to myself.

    The point being that while a reality may and likely does exist, we accept it only by convention and habit; we (you and I) agree about much of its properties because it satisfies our own needs. Facts don’t exist except as arbitrary, virtual entities within categorizing, fact biased, consciousness engines, which, now that I think of it, we further and recursively identify as seats of individuality. A lot of irony there. It’s as though my own self is singular and indivisible! No dividing facts seem capable of splitting me into half-selves!

  32. Vivec says

    So, the mere fact that empiricists existed centuries ago (or skeptics thousands of years ago, etc.) and thus pre-dated PoMo theorists …. that doesn’t do a whole lot for me.

    Given that it was a specific response to a specific statement by Ragdish, I couldn’t care less if it “does a whole lot for you”.

  33. consciousness razor says

    Amateur:

    I think it would be interesting if someone could prove that reality exists outside awareness, perception, and interpretation of it. Proof, mind you, not a performance designed to shock me: Such a performance would only prove to myself that my own sensations would appear to be momentarily hidden to myself.

    Two options: there is something of which you have awareness and perceptions and interpretations, or there is not. There is no coherent reason to believe things require interpretations merely to be what they are. I would say being incoherent and unreasonable (or interpreted as such, if you like) is generally inadvisable.

    Why did you ask for a proof, especially if you think it’s false anyway?

    And how do you think that might be accomplished? Could you interpret one into existence for yourself? Are there other things which might conceivably be done, other than attending/perceiving/interpreting? Do those summarize all of the rules of the game, or are those just the ones you care about at this particular moment?

    If we’re all figments of your imagination, are you really interested in what we might do, or are you just pretending to be interested? (No way to tell if my feelings would be hurt, so please just be honest.) Since you’re running the show and all, my humble suggestion is that you may want to consider inventing more interesting fake people to interpret, if this isn’t the interpretation of the interpretation of the interpretation that you wanted to interpret.

    Vivec:

    Given that it was a specific response to a specific statement by Ragdish, I couldn’t care less if it “does a whole lot for you”.

    I don’t particularly care which sentence fragments you’ve decided to read from my comments and which you’ve decided to pass over in silence. But it speaks volumes.

  34. Vivec says

    I don’t particularly care which sentence fragments you’ve decided to read from my comments and which you’ve decided to pass over in silence. But it speaks volumes.

    Oh no! I’m failing to sell you on post-modernism! Given that was never a goal of mine, I’m not surpised that my not responding to your other points “Speaks volumes”.

  35. KG says

    PZ@24,

    You’re just confusing truth and knowledge again – possibly the central error of postmodernism. An assertion is true if and only if what it asserts is actually the case*. Whether and how we know it, whether and how we ever can know it, how any beliefs we have about it were arrived at, do not change its truth or falsity, or the meaning of “true”, in any way.

    And, now I’ve provided examples of them doing it, do you accept that scientists do make claims to possessing truth?

    *Of course there are complexities – vague assertions, and assertions that are nearly but not exactly true, for example – but these can only be understood if we keep a conceptual hold on the clear cases. And anyone who uses the phrase: “It’s true for me” is an idiot.

  36. einsophistry says

    As I said in a comment on the above video:

    I don’t think universalism/objectivism is the culprit here so much as a certain lack of epistemic humility. The video author already grants the core thesis of small-o objectivism–viz., that there’s a mind-independent world out there. Now, the real problem with what we might call naive or hegemonic universalism seems to be either a failure to recognize a distinction between this external world and our representations of it, or at least a failure to see that the accuracy of these representations can only be assessed indirectly.

    Because we have no god’s-eye-view of the fit between our representations and reality–that is, of truth or falsity–we have to make probabilistic judgments based on considerations like whether the representation in question allows us to predict unexpected phenomena or to reliably make successful interventions in the world. That said, the fact that truth cannot be assessed directly does not mean that it must be relativized, whether to individuals or to communities. The mistake many postmodernists make in response to this epistemic difficulty is to reconceptualize truth and/or reality so as to place them back within our certain reach (and I note with delicious irony that Jordan Peterson, one of today’s most redfaced critics of postmodernism, does basically the same sort thing with his Darwinian/Jungian/Jamesian notion of truth as ancestral utility). This is a breach of humility no less severe than that of the direct realists/naive universalists.

    I think it’s worth preserving the notion of truth as a mirroring relation or isomorphism between reality and a representation thereof–even if we can never know with 100% certainty whether this relation has obtained in any given case. “Informed opinions that align based on evidence” ought not be regarded as truth itself, but merely as uniquely promising candidates for truth. This allows us to preserve the skeptical core of postmodernism without the self-serving and ultimately counterproductive relativism/subjectivism, freeing us from the need to say embarrassing things like; “p is true for Group X, but ~p is true for Group Y” or “Newtonian Mechanics used to be true, but now General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are true.” Truth is valuable as a lodestar–epistemologically, scientifically, morally, and politically–and as an important piece of conceptual scaffolding, even if our certainty can only ever be asymptotic.

  37. says

    Something that might be usefully here is consideration of what “ring of truth” is. This is my take on it.

    Feeling of emotion is rooted in body states, I think of them as “autonomic states”. Feeling of anger, fear, joy, saddness… It’s the current state we are experiencing as we perceive the world and things in it, the memories of previous states related to what is in perception as we perceive the world and things in it, and the comparison/contrast with the state then and now. If we perceive something that is very consistent with our memories=past body states recorded in that memory and tied to perceptual objects in another kind of memory, we perceive it as having a “ring of truth” when the consistency is in social communication.

    Any sort of rationality must require personal mastery of the sensation and meaning of one’s urges and impulses, and how that is tied to our previous experiences and motivation in the moment. This is not impossible, and it’s likely a thing under social pressure of different forms both negative and positive (suppression of questioning within authoritarian culture for example). All this to be able to appreciate something we feel negatively or positively about on its own terms independent of any agreement or disagreement.

    In parallel one can also cultivate rationally chosen impulsive reactions for political purposes.

  38. says

    Oh, and one cultivate rationally chosen inhibitory impulses tied to previously unconscious urges that were causing problems. Note this does not mean that one has to lose anything, including the original impulse. One can choose the context for the impulse. One becomes more diverse, complex, and powerful. It’s a good thing.

  39. einsophistry says

    Amateur @34:

    Not quite a proof, perhaps, but a potent abductive argument: You’ll grant, I assume, that there are aspects or elements of our perceptions that we cannot simply change by pure feats of will. But if these elements exist outside my conscious control, how much sense does it make to regard them as internal to me? Perhaps the world is all and only mind, but it would seem that either (1) it’s not all MY mind; or (2) my mind is deeply and incurably divided (in which case the question my again be raised: On what basis ought this all to be regarded as belonging to ME? How can I claim ownership over that which acts independently?). Either way, there’s a need to recognize a distinction between what falls within the ambit of my direct conscious will and what doesn’t.

    Now, if I assume that only my mind exists, and I duly apply this distinction to it, then I have no resources to explain why any of these perceptual elements resist my conscious control and exhibit the regularities they do–why they sometimes align with my desires and sometimes fail to, etc. If I assume that these elements belong to other minds in a vast community of minds that exhausts reality, then I have no (or at least insufficient) resources to explain patterns of agreement and disagreement between these minds. The positing of an external, mind-independent world simply lets me make the most sense of both my own experiences and the reported experiences of other minds.

  40. consciousness razor says

    The video author already grants the core thesis of small-o objectivism–viz., that there’s a mind-independent world out there.

    Well, that’s something I guess. Assuming that’s settled, it’s still not clear what is being affirmed/rejected. I’ll quote this bit again (much more of the drivel is in #9):

    Religion is a universalist belief. You believe that there is only one way that things can be, and that thing is unquestionable. That’s not changeable. It’s not something that is ever going to be different. That’s exactly how things are.

    And postmodernism is an approach that encourages you not to think that way.

    1) Things can be only one way.
    2) That is unquestionable.
    3) That is unchangeable, will never be different.
    4) That is exactly how things are.

    By my count, those are four different, non-equivalent things, which we’re encouraged not to think. (But that’s just the beginning, if you keep reading/listening.)

    Our world is only one way. That isn’t usually a very helpful statement, but it may be in this situation, when it’s a struggle simply to get someone to say that there is a world. It is large and contains multitudes, but it does not contradict itself. People do that and disagree with each other and so forth, but not reality as a whole. For example, some of us in the US will have a total solar eclipse next month; and reality isn’t such that those same places will also not be eclipsed, due to the fact that reality has multiple “ways” that it can be all at once. That’s just not how things work.

    Is it logically possible that reality can be or could have been some utterly different way? Maybe Earth doesn’t even exist, the laws of physics as we know them don’t apply, etc.? That’s certainly possible, but is a totally different type of question. It’s still trivially true that it is what it is, whatever that may be and whatever anybody may know about it.

    You can ask questions about whether or not the eclipse will happen as it’s predicted to happen. Go for it. Ask lots of questions. People who actually did ask some relevant ones to themselves will find out next month whether or not their astronomical predictions are correct. (They’re already very sure, of course.) Maybe it will all pass by, and you’ll just keep asking the same stuff, without appreciating what for real just happened in the world.

    It won’t ever be different that the eclipse happens next month, that much is true. But in a different sense, some things do change such that for example people somewhere are not in a constant state of seeing total solar eclipses every moment of their lives. There are universal dynamics that, if we’ve discovered anything about them, ought to encourage us not to believe shit like that. Somebody may deserve credit for understanding such things, but it’s certainly not obvious that they are postmodernists.

    The world isn’t going to be in some kind of vague or ambiguous or confused or ignorant or biased state next month, such that there isn’t “exactly” an eclipse in those places, since the world doesn’t do exactly anything, isn’t sure exactly what it is doing, hasn’t asked itself exactly the right questions, etc., so things get a bit fudged somehow or it tries to pass that off onto us as the best it can do. Again, people do stuff like that, not reality as a whole. Best not to confuse all of the ways people much things up, with the amorphous “things” (in 1-4) which are meant to represent all of the generic non-personal stuff in the actual world.

    I don’t recognize “religion” in any of this, but in the back of our minds, there’s apparently supposed to be some kind of suggestion of dogmatism or stubbornness or other attitudes that are only hinted at. If these just aren’t clear statements of what the problems are supposed to be, if they’re not the sorts of things postmodernism encourages us to reject, then it doesn’t sound like we’ve made much progress so far. Something is being discouraged, perhaps, but it may not be any of the stuff that they’re literally saying. Bible salesmen are more honest about what they’re selling. It’s a low standard, but I guess you’ve got to start somewhere, right?

  41. consciousness razor says

    Correction:

    Best not to confuse all of the ways people muck things up

    They also fuck it up, but “muck” is good enough here.

  42. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    #5: Which is why scientists avoid making claims of possessing truth.

    What it means is that there are shades of meaning to the “truth”. Scientists aren’t using the word in the same sense that, say, Ken Ham is — truth is a much weaker thing in our hands than in theirs. Which is a good thing.

    This is just silly discussion. PZ is framing the argument in a particular context, and choosing particular technical definitions of words, and then using these words in a way that is almost calculated to cause confusion. Of course science is the practice of learning what is true. And of course science as a practice can never arrive at any conclusion with 100%, absolute, irrefutable, unquestionable certainty. This is just epistemology 101. You don’t need postmodernism for that.

    This reminds me a lot of another haughty philosopher who choose to speak in a confusing manner, because he was also hung up on an obscure technical definition of a word, and thus spoke a manner that seemed almost purposefully designed to mislead others. I speak of the great Bertrand Russell, who IIRC once explained his confusing choice of words by saying something like “I’m 99% sure that there is no god, and so by a vulgar, informal definition, I’m an atheist, but because I’m not 100% sure, because it’s not certain beyond all doubt and future evidence, technically I’m an agnostic and not an atheist”. Just asinine.

    PZ is attacking the strawman of absolute certainty. Of course many religious people have absolute certainty, but for the people who are just confused what postmodernism is supposed to it, this attack on absolute certainty is an attack on a strawman. Of course we shouldn’t be absolutely certain of practically any belief or claim, or perhaps all beliefs and claims. Of course we should revisit our beliefs based on new evidence. And yet of course it is also true that there are objectively right and wrong answers, and of course it is also true that sometimes the practice of science gets us to where we have justified strong degrees of confidence that some answers are objectively right and some answers are objectively wrong, and we can also know with justified strong degrees of confidence when we know things with justified strong degrees of confidence.

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