Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? A Dialogue

Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? A Dialogue July 20, 2018

Two of my colleagues discuss postmodernism, truth, and bias.

News flash: civil dialogue is possible in the com-box! In the comments section of the Dawkins vs. Gould wrap-up, two of my fellow bloggers exchanged ideas about human nature, informed decision-making, and trust in science.

Meeting of the Minds of the Century of the Week

In one corner we have Honey Crisis, creator of the wonderfully anarchic Lipstick Riot channel on Disqus. In the opposite corner we have Rick Snedeker, manager of the Godzooks blog here on Patheos, where he wields the hammer of reason against the Religious Right. You couldn’t locate two more different mindsets without elaborate equipment: the nonlinear thinker and the straightforward rationalist. Yet they had what to all appearances was a fruitful dialogue. What are the odds?

Welcome to the PoMo-Go-Round

It’s tough to explain or understand postmodernism, because the term encompasses a lot of different viewpoints, issues and concepts. Rick started out by disapproving what he considers the postmodern mistrust of the scientific project:

I still cannot buy into and even struggle to fathom this so-called postmodernist wariness of science. I lean far more toward Dawkins on this and find some of Gould’s views such as his “non overlapping magisterial” as unsubstantiated as the Trinity. Certainly, even honorable scientists have biases, egos and tendencies toward defensiveness that can skew their results, and some have been known to “cook their books.” But I’d like to think that broad integrity in the sciences is leading us steadily forward and adding to concrete, useful knowledge. This idea that we are all trapped in a sociological, psychological and traditional vortex of distortion and thus cannot trust our senses and intellect strikes me as an invented “problem.” Mankind didn’t put a man on the moon through self-delusion. My view is, trust good-faith, properly conducted science, even glorify its capacity for boosting progress, but verify its methodology and results.

I’m not sure Rick’s assessment of postmodernism is entirely fair, but he’s right that there’s a skepticism about science that strikes a lot of science fans as misplaced. For someone who spends a lot of time correcting the faithful in their kooky crusades against evolution and climate change, trust in science isn’t a problem.

HC responds by making a valid distinction between critique and condemnation, and trying to establish reasonable boundaries for the wariness Rick observes:

Postmodernism gets a bad rap that I think is undeserved.

It was never intended to be an excuse to dismiss findings and more traditional methods of inquiry, only to apply critique to them.

And a critique isn’t necessarily a dismissal of an idea. It’s as often a deconstruction and analysis of an idea. Postmodernism just offers another philosophical method of inquiry and analysis that eschews grand narratives, which generally leads to what appears to be the “wariness” you speak of.

But it’s not just the idea that everything is up in the air, that nothing has meaning, that there is no truth. That would be more like a form of nihilism.

I literally couldn’t have said it better myself. The postmodern attitude is that truth is a very complicated and culturally contingent set of issues, even the truth that science tries to establish.

Rick, however, is still bothered by the notion that science needs to defend itself from unwarranted scrutiny. Why do we have to overthink everything?

Well, postmodernist ideas often strike me as more nihilistic than not. It’s like arbitrarily creating an unnecessary realm of argumentation.

And HC responds by pointing out that the argumentation is far from unnecessary. If certainty about objective truth is illusory, so is the idea that there’s no truth or meaning at all. It just makes it all the more crucial to take up the challenge of understanding the grounds for our beliefs:

Postmodernism is not afraid of nihilism. At the same time it’s not nihilism.

Postmodernism if anything, could be a considered an attempt at transcendence of nihilism.

It accepts that we have no real anchors we can ultimately rely on. But where it departs from nihilism is that for nihilism this is the essential conclusion, where postmodernism keeps going, pushing past into attempting to navigate without anchors in the abyss, rather than giving into the abyss.

Well, that was a bit much for Rick, whose rationalist alarm bell started ringing long and loud:

I don’t buy the idea that we have “no real anchors.” Yes, there may be some perceptive distortions but, if understood, we should be able to understand pretty clearly the underlying material reality, the “anchor” of the thing, so to speak.

There’s no clearer example of the difference between these two ways of thinking. For Rick, who battles religious and right-wing delusion on a daily basis, the entire legacy of human inquiry has been about establishing what’s real. For HC, who’s been staring into the abyss so long the abyss is scared to stare back, ideas like reality and truth are usually ways the powerful impose conformity of opinion and behavior.

So Honey Crisis has the last word, circling back to what Rick originally said about the aim of inquiry being to generate useful knowledge:

we always understand the material reality quite clearly until someone comes along and unseats it.

science is a series of increments punctuated by revolutions.

Those revolutions are why you can’t count on what you know to “pretty clearly reflect the underlying reality”

at best all you can do is ask if it is pretty clearly “useful.”

At the end of the day, whether science “works” because it’s describing reality or “works” because it’s validating its own assumptions, pragmatism forms common ground between the two mindsets.

What do you think? Does the idea of online commenters coming to a provisional point of agreement shock and offend you? Is this a sign of the End Times?

 

"Hey, Shem, thanks for the complimentary shout-out. I'm not sure that I'm always thoughtful, but ..."

Ghost Stories, Spider Man and Debunking
"Just curious, what do you think about assigning ~ 85% bad and ~15% good to ..."

Academic Hoaxes and Intellectual Dishonesty
""Explained" may be a midleading word for you. We often think "explanation" = "reductive description". ..."

Markus Gabriel Is Fighting Neurocentrism One ..."
"Hello. New commenter here! 😊 This is fascinating but i have a hard time understanding. ..."

Markus Gabriel Is Fighting Neurocentrism One ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Nonreligious
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Oooh, not only are you restarting this discussion, which I love, you also gave me a shout out.

    Feelin the love, Shem. =D

    Thanks for this OP. This is my red meat.

  • For the commenters joining, I want to make it clear that I am not primarily invested in postmodernism. My defense of it is about clarity, in terms of what postmodernism is and isn’t.

    If I had to pick which abstract philosophical school of thought speaks to me most profoundly, it would be post-structuralism.

    And while post-structuralism arguably flirts with postmodernism because of some shared notions, like the notion that you can’t realistically separate truth from conformity of thought and power behind it, post-structuralism is distinct in other ways, including that it *does* construct grand narratives, but typically around the dialectic of order and revolt.

  • arithrianos

    the map is not the territory, the word is not the thing, and the reality aka the laughing one is always laughing at how we break when trying to break her. reality is always bigger than we are, until we REALize enlightenment, which is to say when we finally do the walk peter Gabriel goes at the very end of sledgehammer, my god WE(all sentient beings of the three times and ten directions) are full of stars.

  • Raging Bee

    Those [scientific] revolutions are why you can’t count on what you know to “pretty clearly reflect the underlying reality”

    That’s what every anti-rationalist con-artist and demagogue says whenever we debunk their crap using reason based on reality. “Your fancy-pants science was wrong before, therefore no one can ever trust science to get anything right again, therefore my silly/bigoted/fascist/religious/crackpot assertions stand above all challenge and will never be refuted!” If that’s really what “postmodernism” is about, then we really don’t need it.

  • even if that was what every anti-rationalist said, you’re essentially trying to affirm the antecedent, to wit, you’re suggesting that because “anti-rationalists” make an argument, that a rational person would not also make that argument.

    The rest of your post is basically a straw man.

    And more importantly, it suggests that had you lived 100 years ago when science so authoritatively considered white people to be more human than others, you’d cling to the same.

    or if you lived prior to the 1970s you would have dismissed any possibility that life could exist at the oceanic depths we now know they’re capable of surviving in.

  • As I tried to make clear in the OP, that’s really not what postmodernism is about. If our knowledge is prone to revision when new information changes our current conception of phenomena, that’s a valid reason to be prudent about insisting that our knowledge corresponds directly to some objective reality. Grand pronouncements about “reality” deserve our skepticism too.

    I don’t think I deserve to be accused of providing intellectual cover for crackpots or bigots, considering that I’ve never tolerated conspiracism or religious numbnuttery of any kind either here or on my Disqus channel. Let’s be reasonable.

  • The Cat

    Part of the problem is the transformation of science into a Deity-free religion, where supporting the approved paradigm supercedes what the evidence actually says.

    Evolution is a fun idea, but, it has no basis in reality, for just one example.
    It cannot explain how new species arise, nor can it illuminate the question of why there is life on this planet.

    Of course, the failing religious institutions of the 19th C had to be replaced with something, and that turned out to be science.

    But science, like religion, is done by humans, and this particular species is not generally noted for choosing reason over emotion, in large part due to what is generally called human nature. The general preference for the known and for tradition and continuity, in part.

    The speed of light has been observed long enough and accurately enough to know, with reasonable certainty, that it is not a constant, but rather that it is slowing down. This is a fundamental problem for the current model of how the universe works. Yet textbooks and current instruction in sciences affected by this problem continue to simply ignore it.

    Feel free to doubt me, but, every major advancement of science has had to wait to be accepted until the Old Guard died off, taking their natural opposition to new ideas with them. Ask Galileo. Or Einstein.

    All Darwin discovered was the variable capability of any given species to adapt to it’s environment. This results in sub-species, not new species.

    A single cell organism cannot have arisen by chance. Math is math, I’m afraid. Welcome to the holodeck called Reality.

    >^o.-^<

  • Raging Bee

    If our knowledge is prone to revision when new information changes our
    current conception of phenomena, that’s a valid reason to be prudent
    about insisting that our knowledge corresponds directly to some
    objective reality.

    Not really — incomplete knowledge still “corresponds” to objective reality, even if it doesn’t fully or perfectly describe it.

  • Feel free to doubt me, but, every major advancement of science has had to wait to be accepted until the Old Guard died off, taking their natural opposition to new ideas with them.

    This is the only sentence in your entire post that isn’t unmitigated hogwash.

  • Raging Bee

    Also, when have we been less than “prudent about insisting that our knowledge corresponds directly to some objective reality?” Which ‘Grand pronouncements about “reality”‘ are we wrongly supporting, that postmodernism effectively debunks?

  • That’s what I mean, though. Data points aren’t just gold bricks in the Stairway to Science Heaven. Scientific revolutions force us to reconceptualize phenomena, and create a new map that changes the way we define the territory.

  • frank intuiter

    To speak of Lipstick Riot is to invite us into your home.
    This is most excellent because we do our best to be angels rather than demons.
    But that would be another discussion.
    One may understand Modernism in the work of Freud and Einstein, just to be suggestive; Modernism made the experience of individuals worthy of consideration while also destroying a deterministic science and replacing it with a probalistic model of physical reality. These relatively more difficult models are comprehensible to trained minds, but lead, if delved into, to models of reality in which predictable outcomes are no longer, even in principle, sure things. Ask HC about Complex Adaptive Systems, which is what life lives within, if you dare. The Modern era was a confident time. It becomes Post modern with the introduction of humility. Many scientists still cling to Modernism, just as many ordinary people remain Pre Modern.
    God help us all.

  • Raging Bee

    First, how does anything I’ve said “suggest” I would have supported white supremacy 100 years ago?

    And second, how would a postmodernist critique of the “scientific authority” of 100 years ago have debunked their notions of white superiority? If I’m remembering my history correctly, such notions were debunked by references to observable reality, not by postmodernists questioning the prudence of accepting a scientific consensus. (Also, was there really a SCIENTIFIC consensus at that time that whites were “more human” than others? A social consensus, yes, but a scientific one?)

    even if that was what every anti-rationalist said, you’re essentially
    trying to affirm the antecedent, to wit, you’re suggesting that because
    “anti-rationalists” make an argument, that a rational person would not
    also make that argument.

    Yes, I’m “suggesting” that if anti-rationalists use a certain argument as a talking-point, to reinforce a belief that’s known to be false, that’s a good reason to give that argument a second look, and see if might either be a bogus argument, or a good argument badly worded or easily misrepresented.

    Seriously, do you have an actual response when an anti-rationalist uses that argument as it was stated here?

  • Also, when have we been less than “prudent about insisting that our knowledge corresponds directly to some objective reality?”

    How about virtually all the time? Tell you what, you count how many times in these discussions that someone talks about science revealing reality to us, and I’ll count how many times someone mentions that what we know about reality depends on our forms of inquiry. Wanna bet whose bucket fills up first?

    Which ‘Grand pronouncements about “reality”‘ are we wrongly supporting, that postmodernism effectively debunks?

    Dude, that’s like the bread and butter of the atheist blogosphere: the idea that facts exist, science discovers them, and then we have an accurate picture of reality, is like the Model T of the philosophy of science. Postmodern thinkers were trying to describe just how complicated and contextual truth is, and make us acknowledge how many blind men are always standing between us and the alleged elephant.

  • > First, how does anything I’ve said “suggest” I would have supported white supremacy 100 years ago?

    Because scientific consensus at the time held that as fundamental.

    > And second, how would a postmodernist critique of the “scientific authority” of 100 years ago have debunked their notions of white superiority?

    it’s not designed to do that. postmodern philosophical inquiry has little to do with debunking anything.

    > If I’m remembering my history correctly, such notions were debunked by references to observable reality,

    Then you’re remembering your history incorrectly.

    > Yes, I’m “suggesting” that if anti-rationalists use a certain argument as a talking-point, to reinforce a belief that’s known to be false, that’s a good reason to give that argument a second look,

    That you think some arguments don’t deserve a second look strikes me as more grounded in a religious frame than a critical one.

    > Seriously, do you have an actual response when an anti-rationalist uses that argument as it was stated here?

    Perhaps i would, but where are the anti-rationalists on this thread?

  • I dig Cat, and as insightful as he can be in at times, i have to agree with you here.

  • hear hear!

  • Raging Bee

    it’s not designed to do that. postmodern philosophical inquiry has little to do with debunking anything.

    Then what is it “designed” to do?

    Perhaps i would, but where are the anti-rationalists on this thread?

    Do you really need one to answer my hypothetical question? Just pretend there’s a cdesign proponentsist using the argument quoted in the OP above as an excuse to dismiss the entire theory of evolution (because, yes, creationists have indeed said that sort of thing), and take a gander at a postmodernist response.

  • Raging Bee

    Tell you what, you count how many times in these discussions that someone talks about science revealing reality to us…

    And…how many of those assertions been shown to be wrong?

    …and I’ll count how many times someone mentions that what we know about reality depends on our forms of inquiry.

    That is, at the very least, a plausible-sounding assertion in the abstract; but when has it been used to actually debunk a specific assertion made by someone citing a scientific consensus-view? Is there a particular “form of inquiry” that’s giving us unreliable information?

  • > Then what is it “designed” to do?

    It’s designed to provide a method of inquiry which encourages critique of the things you think you know.

    to reduce it to a sentence, postmodernism is a clarion call against the dogma of modernist philosophy.

  • > Do you really need one to answer my hypothetical question?

    It’s not a hypothetical question. It’s question designed to force you to qualify your question:

    > Seriously, do you have an actual response when an anti-rationalist uses that argument as it was stated here?

    Yes I would. But my response depends on what their specific argument is.

    That’s why asked you to find me the anti-rationalists on this thread.

  • whenever we debunk their crap using reason based on reality

    how many of those assertions been shown to be wrong?

    when has it been used to actually debunk a specific assertion

    such notions were debunked

    We seem to be talking past one another here. I’m just trying to analyze the differences between various approaches to inquiry and knowledge, and you seem stuck in the online-debater mindset where everything’s focused exclusively on debunking claims. Your initial post here explicitly stated that you objected to a phrase HC used purely on the grounds that it might be used as rhetorical camouflage by some crackpot. Now you seem to be judging the value of an approach to inquiry wholly by its utility in the debunking process.

    You seem to take those nitwit slapfights a lot more seriously than I do.

  • The Cat

    Interesting opinion.

  • Raging Bee

    you seem stuck in the online-debater mindset where everything’s focused exclusively on debunking claims.

    That’s because arguments like yours have been used to debunk/pretend to debunk/dismiss claims that are known to be valid/true. So we know that postmodernist arguments have been used for evil purposes; so I think it’s appropriate to ask whether they can also be used for good purposes.

    And yes, I’m purely focused on utility here. That’s because I’m aware that millions of innocent people have a stake in this sort of debate, and like any decent politician, political activist or wannabee, I’m looking for tools or weapons to use for my cause, and trying to anticipate what weapons might be used against it.

  • Raging Bee

    Their argument is that science is just as subjective as their beliefs, and that postmodernist philosophers agree with them on this, therefore science and religion are equally valid ways of knowing, therefore science can’t ever disprove any religious claim. So what’s the postmodernist response to that?

  • So we know that postmodernist arguments have been used for evil purposes;

    Which is something you could never, ever say about science.

  • Hey, @disqus_qeyoCzlAiV:disqus, did you miss this one?

  • Raging Bee

    Okay…and what, exactly, is “the dogma of modernist philosophy?” I’m really not a student of philosophy, so I have no idea what dogma you’re clarion-calling against.

  • Raging Bee

    Plenty of people have said that. But we also know that science has been used for good purposes.

  • Okay, I guess we’re supposed to judge the validity of science by its good uses, but judge everything else by its worst abuses.

    Doesn’t that seem like a double standard? Or do you just affirm the validity of one more standard than everyone else?

  • Raging Bee

    THere’s no double standard at all. I’m just asking someone to show a good use for postmodernist philosophy.

  • Well, it seems to me that we’ve been describing to you how a perspectival approach to truth helps us acknowledge the contingency and contextuality of what we believe, and how our concepts of nature and reality depend on cultural and socioeconomic factors as well as the results of programs of inquiry. For example, the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) emphasizes the way scientific facts are generated in research communities through collaborative effort and argumentation, in contrast to deriving magically from data points.

    These are useful ways of looking at the human and social context of inquiry. If pomo philosophy isn’t your jam, hey, no sweat. But don’t make it sound like it’s useless unless it can help out in the online trenches of the Factoid Wars.

  • i’d probably trade a body part for your gift with the written word.

  • > Their argument is that science is just as subjective as their beliefs

    Postmodernism doesn’t promote that claim. It’s not nihilism.

    The postmodernist response to that would be the same as I hope any rational response would be – “show your work!”

    and then such a hypothetical postmodernist would question the meta-narratives present in such work.

    Maybe if i put the exchange in the OP at the top in a different light it can illustrate this for you:

    Let’s reduce the OP to one facet of postmodernism – the most important one here in this exchange between you and I – the most relevant one:

    postmodernism essentially holds that no method of human inquiry is free from bias.

    however, just as importantly, postmodernism does not dismiss all human inquiry on the grounds it is biased.

    Instead, it is an approach that distinctly seeks to put the bias itself under a microscope in service to better understanding what we know about the world around us in context to ourselves.

    As Shem so wonderfully put it somewhere before, all forms of human inquiry are a dialog with reality and each other.

  • technically i suppose I should have said high modernism.

    Anyway, the dogma i refer to is here:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_modernism

    High modernism (also known as “high modernity”) is a form of modernity, characterized by an unfaltering confidence in science and technology as means to reorder the social and natural world.[1] The high modernist movement was particularly prevalent during the Cold War, especially in the late 1950s and 1960s.

  • Raging Bee

    Oh, so it’s what most people seem to call “extremely technocratic social policy and planning.” And maybe I’m missing something, but I really don’t see how “postmodern” anything is needed to debunk that idea — actual experience does that job quite nicely.

  • how is it different than your position?

    > And maybe I’m missing something, but I really don’t see how “postmodern” anything is needed to debunk that idea

    What you’re missing is the same thing Shem and I keep repeating at you.

    Postmodernism isn’t about debunking anything.

  • @richardsnedeker:disqus, I thought I’d bring this discussion to your attention. I hope I didn’t put words in your mouth or anything.

  • larry parker

    Hi Shem, This might not be a good way to start, but I disagree with your critique of Cats screed, down thread. That sentence is also unmitigated hogwash. All the new guard has to do supersede the old guard is to show their work. Nobody has to die.
    As for the rest of the post and comments, a lot of it is above my pay grade. I think that I mostly align with Rick (in the post) and Raging Bee (in the comments). Anyway, I think I’ll lurk for a while, maybe I’ll learn something!

  • Welcome to the blog!

    All the new guard has to do supersede the old guard is to show their work. Nobody has to die.

    I’m not sure it’s quite as simple as “showing their work.” There are plenty of valid, deep-seated disagreements among scientific experts, because of the way they arrange, interpret, and emphasize the evidence they have. It’s not like data points have some sort of magic power to make disagreement disappear; science is as much about argumentation as experimentation. Depending on how things develop in the industry, and issues like funding and publicity shake out, one theory might end up being better accepted while the adherents of the other theory retire still thinking they had it right.

    Don’t worry, no one here needs qualifications to join the discussion, least of all me. Lurk or post whenever the mood strikes you.

  • larry parker

    I was speaking in more general terms. I know that there is palace intrigue. Maybe I should have said: Theoretically, no one has to die.

  • It sounded to me like Shem was echoing Max Planck’s statement that science advances one funeral at a time.