A Response To Rick About Postmodernism

A Response To Rick About Postmodernism April 17, 2019

Postmodernism deserves a better explanation.

My buddy Rick Snedeker at the Godzooks blog waved a red flag at me at the end of March, and since I was on holiday I didn’t see it until this week. In his article called “If you’re a postmodernist, this post will probably seem absurd,” Rick makes some really odd claims about postmodern theory. I urge everyone to read his article and judge for yourself whether Rick is on target or not.

Rick has discussed his unique definition of postmodernism here at DTA last year. My sibling-from-another-extraterrestrial Honey Crisis tried to clarify postmodernism for Rick and disabuse him of some of his stranger notions, and I even gave Rick props for the civility of the discussion. So it’s disappointing to see him claiming that postmodernists deny gravity and don’t believe stubbing your toe would hurt, since folks have made sincere, patient attempts to set him straight.

Anyway, here’s the comment I posted there, which Rick declined to answer:

Rick, I was off on holiday in Washington state for a couple of weeks, taking a tour of the brewpubs of Seattle and Bellingham, and wasn’t checking into Patheos. Sorry I missed this discussion and couldn’t take the bait respond to your post until now.

From what I think I get about postmodernists, they view nearly everything as contingent, or dependent for its meaning, on something else altogether that has somehow slipped our mind. The doctrine seems to hold that even the things we absolutely think we know — what comes to us via our senses, like pain and beauty — may be delusions in our minds whose meaning and reality is actually something entirely different than we realize.

I have to admit, I don’t think much of your grasp of postmodernism or social constructionism. The description above describes nothing I’ve ever read or heard about postmodernism. Your insistence that postmodern theorists deny that gravity exists is something I’ve tried to correct you about in the past, but you keep trotting it out for no reason I can fathom. These straw men are so unwieldy I’m afraid to get anywhere near them.

However, the encyclopedia definition you found sounds broadly correct to me: a Western philosophy of the late 20th century “characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; [and] a general suspicion of reason.” I can work with that.

Essentially, postmodernism is about skepticism toward totalizing narratives. Any set of claims that purports to be the absolute truth or describe how reality is is fair game for scrutiny. It’s not some sort of wacko mysticism that says that nothing is true or things aren’t real. What it’s trying to demonstrate is that reality isn’t self-evident. It’s trying to make us acknowledge all the architectural work that goes into constructing what we know, and realize how much of we consider truth and reality is a function of the power dynamics that prevail in the society. Language, custom, and other social constructs shape the ways we interpret phenomena and encode biases.

Yes, relativism is a big part of the postmodern project. But once again, it’s not fair to characterize this as a belief that “everyone has their own truth” or that “everything is just a matter of opinion.” What it means is that there’s no privileged perspective. This is a hard thing for people to swallow if they’re convinced that, through religion or scientific inquiry, they’ve acquired the only right way of thinking and everyone else has to conform to their system. Acknowledging that other cultures and other traditions have validity is the important thing.

The point the encyclopedia makes about “suspicion of reason” is easy to misinterpret too. It’s not as if these writers and theorists don’t think reason is useful, they just don’t think it makes us impervious to error. What they want us to realize is how easy it is for us to manipulate premises to lead to the conclusion we prefer. We characterize everyone else as biased and hysterical, whereas we’re rational and objective; in fact, we’re just as motivated by values and ideology as everyone else, but we’re more adept at rationalizing opinions we didn’t initially arrive at through reason.

Postmodernists are notorious for pointing out where science is used as a tool of domination. But it’s wrong to say that postmodernists are science deniers, since the seeds of their skepticism can be found in the way we scientifically understand the physical universe nowadays. Darwin showed us a biosphere characterized not by function and essence, but by flux and contingency; Einstein described physical reality as fundamentally observer-dependent, and the paradoxes of quantum mechanics replaced the order of the Newtonian model; say what you want about Freud, he at least showed that conscious, rational thought is a mere subset of what we consider consciousness. Using science to help understand natural phenomena is still a useful project; making it a worldview leads to the same traps that organized religion fell into: authoritarianism and moral complacency. We need to accept that truth is only ever provisional, or else we’re not being scientific.

You seem to have misunderstood what I’ve said about gravity in one of our discussions. I’ve never disputed that things tend to fall in a downward direction, and presumably did before there were humans around to observe them doing so. What I meant is that the ways we conceptualize and systematize this set of phenomena (including the Law of Universal Gravitation and its attendant formulae) are human inventions. A lot of hard work from generations of scientists went into constructing our current understanding of gravity. Thinking that the fact of gravity was just waiting for us to discover it is as weird as thinking that the English word gravity was just waiting for humans to realize it’s the perfect term to describe the set of phenomena to which we currently apply it.

Make no mistake about it, the opposition to postmodern ideas has an ideological component. This stuff was all the rage in the 60s and 70s, and went hand in hand with a lot of social movements that threatened the establishment. Feminists, African Americans and the gay community were describing the many ways that modern society is engineered to privilege straight white men, and that even the conventions of our language perpetuate their oppression. Europe’s former colonies were dealing with the legacy of domination that was imposed through religion, language repression, and scientific inquiry. Political radicals were calling for not only a political revolution, but fundamental changes in our ways of thinking for the good of humanity, nonhuman animals and the environment. This level of skepticism and relativism had consequences for the powers that be, so deriding and misrepresenting postmodernist ideas serves a lot of vested interests.

But we can’t put the Humpty Dumpty of objective reality back together again just by saying the word Science a lot. The very same way you look at religious believers—as nostalgic, misinformed people clinging to their illusions—is how I look at the science fans who show up to denigrate “postmodern BS” in the rare instances it shows up outside academia these days. We have to live with the obsolescence of our comforting truths, the same way as geocentrists and religious people did. We need to realize how loaded the ideas of truth and reality are, especially when they’re telling us exactly what we want to hear. That’s why I’m always going on about questioning our beliefs and scrutinizing our biases: when people only apply skepticism to ideas they already reject, that’s not what I call skepticism.

What do you think? Is that a fair description of what postmodernism is and isn’t? Or did Rick get it right?

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  • Raging Bee

    But we can’t put the Humpty Dumpty of objective reality back together again just by saying the word Science a lot.

    Is it actual objective reality that’s broken, or just certain prejudices about who’s being “objective” and who isn’t?

    That’s what gets postmodernism in trouble: careless choice of words.

  • Fair enough. I wasn’t trying to say that things aren’t real anymore, just that we realize that the socio-institutional nature of scientific inquiry brings us from one state of knowledge to another rather than ever closer to the ideal of “objective reality.”

    The orderly, knowable, clockwork universe, and the ideal of a god’s-eye view of it, are gone for good, regardless of how much the ideas comfort us. If contingent and provisional knowledge doesn’t satisfy our need for order and certainty, hey, that’s our problem.

  • Raging Bee

    The god’s-eye-view may be gone for good, but we still perceive a universe operating under physical laws, which are MOSTLY knowable. We’re just finding out that those laws are a lot more complex than we’d previously thought.

  • Nick G

    the socio-institutional nature of scientific inquiry brings us from one
    state of knowledge to another rather than ever closer to the ideal of
    “objective reality.”

    So you’re claiming that – say – the theory of evolution by natural selection is not closer to objective reality than creationism. Yes? No? Because if yes, that’s just stupid crap. And if no, WTF are you saying?

  • Nick G

    This level of skepticism and relativism had consequences for the powers
    that be, so deriding and misrepresenting postmodernist ideas serves a
    lot of vested interests.

    Remind me: who is it who’s been talking a lot about “alternative facts” and suchlike recently?

  • Anthrotheist

    I don’t consider myself to be a postmodernist, really, though I never gave it much thought either. There are a couple of things that occurred to me.

    As far as I understand, science attempts (and largely succeeds) to describe reality; science adherents seem too often to unconsciously insist that science instead defines reality. Maybe its too subtle a difference to really make much difference, but I feel it’s significant enough to keep in mind. This relates to the difference between description and explanation. In the original post quoted here, the author says, “More importantly in the context of this post, I’m almost certain I know why [my toe hurts when I bang it into a chair leg].” What does that mean? Does that indicate that he knows the physical forces at work (e.g., the momentum of his foot vs. the inertia and floor-to-leg friction of the chair, resulting in a disruption of the soft tissues of his toe stimulating nerve endings that send a pain signal to his brain); or why he is feeling pain (e.g., as an evolutionary adaptation to alert an organism to physical injury and discourage it from repeating what caused the injury); or why it hurts so much (i.e., why does the pain seem so disproportionate to the severity of the injury); or why he banged his toe in the first place (e.g., is it proof that contradicts the notion of libertarian free will, or did he subconsciously want to bang his toe)?

    It isn’t the knowledge that is the concern, it is the certainty, not only in that knowledge itself but in the assumption that everyone understands exactly what is meant (and why).

    As for being suspicious of reason, my take on it is this: reason is a tool. It has a purpose, and a very valuable and important one at that. Its purpose is to solve problems. That’s it. It doesn’t do anything else. It doesn’t make things right, it doesn’t make things better, it doesn’t make anyone happier, it only solves problems that were in the way of any of those things happening. Again, this is a crucial tool, but it is not the only tool that humans have. It’s like the old saying, “to a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” The overemphasis on reason ends up reducing the valuation (and therefor use) of other tools like emotion and serenity, both of which are much better at certain things (like making things happier and feeling more secure). It isn’t that I dislike reason, or disparage it in any way, I just get frustrated that it is the only tool that people seem to use and often in inappropriate times; this criticism applies to science as well, insofar as science is a rational pursuit (which it mostly — but not entirely — is).

  • So you’re claiming that – say – the theory of evolution by natural selection is not closer to objective reality than creationism. Yes? No? Because if yes, that’s just stupid crap. And if no, WTF are you saying?

    Relax, Nick, no creationists here. This a safe space, I swear.

    I think you’re already well aware that we have no magic yardstick to measure how “close to objective reality” a hypothesis or theory is. All we know is how coherent and consistent the theory of evolution by natural selection is, and how useful it has been to scientists and researchers in various disciplines studying the biosphere. Ideas like common ancestry and descent with modification are what ground the most cogent argumentation among experts in these scientific disciplines, and thus are the bases of the consensus that develops among these experts.

    We don’t have a way to access natural history independent of the means that scientists and researchers have developed to conceptualize and study it, that’s all.

  • Nick G

    Unsurprisingly, you are both condescending and evasive. We don’t need a “magic yardstick” because we have observation, experiment and reasoning to tell us, in sufficiently clear cases (such as evolution through natural selection versus creationism), that one hypothesis or theory is nearer objective reality than another. Do you accept that, or not?

  • Unsurprisingly, you are both condescending and evasive.

    Hey, Nick, I prefer civil dialogue here and I’d really like you to dial back the insults. Take a gander at the Shem Commandments for future reference.

  • Phil Rimmer

    Its a plague on both your houses, for me.

    Science achieves ever greater predictive mastery is some areas. But that says nothing for the quality of understanding, which is only ever achieved through metaphor and familiarity. Understanding waxes then wanes until we push for more. With a new demonstration it waxes then, as niggling errors emerge it falls, to be replaced by another tentative understanding which is tested for greater mastery.

    People endlessly muddle the achievements of predictive mastery and the contingent narratives of understanding. Science uses metaphysics often to frame its unknown mooted objects and as Wittgenstein despaired, for a lack of ostensive definition of such a metaphysical object, given the slipperiness of words that make tentative definitions, we can never, through words and reasoning reliably master, prove or disprove, the existence of that metaphysical object.

    BUT Popper allowed that such an object may be found by experiment (if an experiment were possible) and that its founding ostensive definition lies in the very data of the lab results.

    The sheer crass genetic determinism of Jordan Peterson best illustrates the value of some aspects of post-modern discourse. Lobster hierarchies is the perfect faux pas of those on the coattails of science determined to present some narrative of “understanding” in place of the ostensive facts of mere mastery.

    Constructivism, constructionism is a current metaphysical approach adopted in many areas including the science of neurology. It generates narratives that are then tested for. It observes that brain wiring chronotopically grows and recedes, for humans at least, almost entirely in the flux of cultural experience. Apart from the four or five cognitively differentiated groups that appear entirely relatable to large diffuse gene clusters, we appear possibly from early results, far, far more nurtured than natured. Patriarchy, say, is not a proved or inevitable thing at all.

    “What it means is that there’s no privileged perspective. ” No! Predictive masteries are just that. Don’t muddle in the metaphysics science uses as if its the science itself.

    “the socio-institutional nature of scientific inquiry brings us from one
    state of knowledge to another rather than ever closer to the ideal of
    “objective reality.” No! No! Terrible lazy thinking. Some things are increasingly mastered.

  • Anthrotheist

    I’m curious what your perspective is on the difference between the continuously increased complexity of science and technology, and the perception of continuous improvement and progress. Are they the same, are they causally connected, are they merely correlated, or are they falsely associated?

  • Sam D

    The same people who are talking about “fake news” as if they agree that lies are bad. The US Executive Branch will gladly misuse, misrepresent, and misunderstand modernism, postmodernism, and metamodernism (which states that analyzing both in context and with no context have their benefits) to serve their poorly-considered interests.

  • I’ve said it before on this board: it’s easy for people who have never read Foucault and Derrida to believe that they were storming the reality castle to make way for Donald Trump and the post-truth society. However, there’s a difference between a critique of knowledge, truth and power on the one hand, and a mindset that says that you should just think whatever you want on the other.

    It’s not like Trump is dedicated to a model of social interaction that’s predicated on asymmetrical power relations, he’s just a narcissistic, predatory jerk.

  • Phil Rimmer

    I don;t have the perception that science is now getting particularly more complex. I think like all models its complexity is like the outline of a kid’s drawing of a Christmas tree… it broadens out as more entities are added then slims in again as these entities are integrated. Maxwells equations of electromagnetic behaviours numbered something like 20 until Oliver Heaviside slimmed them down to a gorgeous and elegant 4.

    Tech gets clever and it simplifies to the Arthur C. Clarke state of an advanced civilisations apparent magic. We get blasé so quickly. For kids everything is normal.

    Actual civilisation advancement is only a correlate of tech. In one sense we advance because the list of all our problems that have found solutions has grown longer. Our greatest achievements are mostly social inventions of greater mutuality and understanding our deep history. Learning to live with our differing cognitive skews and talents, accommodating then exploiting those to our mutual benefit. Tech has accelerated our understanding of each other especially those remote in time and place. It must now serve us to better manage our lower empathy leaders and parasites better. We need them, but we need to stop them keeping us quite so stupid and biddable.

  • Fmr ATrealDonaldTrump

    That said, if postmodernists were good Pyrrhonic Skeptics, they’d put pomo itself under their own glass.

    Per a comment of Shem’s below, I believe in more of a correspondence than coherence theory of truth, while noting at the same time that a posteriori statements are empirical and so their correspondence-truth is bounded in some way. Or, to put it another way, some knowledge is more provisional, some is less provisional. And, scientific methodology is the best way we have of determining what is what.

    And, while science has had biases (and in the cases of something like medicine, failure to study women and non-whites better has had real fallout) there is no such thing as, say “black physics.” Or “white physics.” Or “gay physics.” Or “straight physics.” There’s physics, and within that, there is “better physics” and “worse physics.”

    But, things like mathematical or logical statements? No coherence involved.


    In other worse, pomo rightly questioned some presuppositions, but as things like the Sokal hoax showed, it often has thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

  • ephemerol

    If there’s no yardsticks, what basis did you use to decide against creationism?

  • Fmr ATrealDonaldTrump

    And, having looked at Rick’s definition, I don’t see it as off the wall, either. Plenty of people, myself included, who like a lot of what Gould had to say about ev psych and sociobiology, also think at the same time that his “NOMA” is silly, at least as far as religion makes empirical claims. If a religion wants to hold metaphysical beliefs but make no claims about their this-world empirical playout, that’s one thing, but religions generally don’t do that. They’d not have customers, if you will, if they did.

  • Fmr ATrealDonaldTrump

    And, having looked at Honey’s comments? Science is not “magically self-correcting,” but … the scientific method does, at least in theory, have the idea of self-correction as part of it. And, while all human systems are, yes, biased, they’re not all equally biased. Nor, contra a pomo riff on Orwell, are some more equally biased than others.

    And, per my original comment here, while stretching the issue, she still doesn’t touch issues of mathematics and logic and while Kant isn’t everything, the larger issue of a priori vs a posteriori statements.

  • Fmr ATrealDonaldTrump

    I also, myself, try to distinguish science, at least theoretical science, and technology.

  • Chuck Johnson

    Thinking that the fact of gravity was just waiting for us to discover it . . .

    The fact of gravity actually was waiting for us to discover it if “waiting” just means existing without having been discovered yet.

    Gravity can’t wait mindfully because it has no mind.

    Also, “fact of gravity” has to mean the natural phenomenon rather than the human perception of it.
    Because “facts” (human perceptions) don’t exist until someone invents a fact.

  • Chuck Johnson

    Shem pulls this trick all the time.
    He leaves things out to stir up controversy.
    I will tell you what Shem means by “objective reality”:

    When he says “objective reality” he means a perfect, eternal description or understanding.
    He denigrates people who consider themselves masters or owners of this kind of objective reality (perfect understanding).

    So don’t say “objective reality”.
    It hints at vanity, arrogance and narrow-mindedness.
    Say that natural selection is an improved understanding compared to creationism.
    Or some other phrase that doesn’t seem to claim to be THE RIGHT ANSWER, or the ultimate or eternal answer.

    Science works well with the concept of “improved understandings”.
    Science (and other ways of looking at our universe) runs into trouble when ultimate or perfect knowledge is asserted or believed.

  • Chuck Johnson

    Science achieves ever greater predictive mastery is some areas. But that says nothing for the quality of understanding, which is only ever achieved through metaphor and familiarity.

    That’s odd.
    You seem to be saying that scientific research doesn’t improve the quality of our understanding.
    That science has nothing to do with metaphor.
    That science does not improve our familiarity with things in our universe.
    Are you saying these things ?

  • Chuck Johnson

    Shem is a trickster.
    He inserts phrases like “objective reality” and “magic yardstick” aiming to stir up controversy.
    I have seen him do it often.

  • Chuck Johnson

    So I looked up Postmodernism on Wikipedia.

    It doesn’t look to me like it’s a threat to human civilization or civilization’s savior, either.
    I see it more as an artistic form similar to surrealism or dadaism.
    Useful to help people see things from a new perspective, but not destined to take over the world.

  • Fmr ATrealDonaldTrump

    At the same time, to reference a comment Chuck made on another Patheos blog but Disqus won’t let me comment there, with some goofy “author email” prompts?

    Scientists still need philosophers, among other things. Else, we get scientism, where some scientists try to offer scientific explanations of nonscientific matters. And, yes, scientism is a real thing. Some scientists know that it is.

    Anywho, the possible Shem “versus” Rick angle of this, speaking of philosophers, is yet another example of philosopher Idries Shah being right, that on big things at least, there’s never just two sides.

  • Phil Rimmer

    Not at all. Science allows us to master our environment and that is progressively expanding. We know how something works with ever greater predictive skill. We inevitably grow more familiar with things the more we are near them. We understand things (why they are like thus and so) contingently, by association, by metaphor and by familiarity…. until the day we grow estranged from from this or that and we ask a why question. But why do things fall downwards? Why is downwards a special direction?

    Usefully, a child can ask “but why” endlessly without need to ever stop, then they grow up and stop. “Why” is about meaning and therefore value and we project meaning and value onto everything. But meaning and value, understanding, becomes increasingly difficult as we venture into the utterly strange realms of quantum reality, say, with its time symmetric and non-local goings on. Metaphor starts to abandon us and “why so” becomes a rickety construct as quasi-metaphors that have less and less root in physical, visceral experience and we survive on familiarity of a sort with the math’s and the Feynman diagrams.

    It may be we run out of how questions but I have this itch that says we may never exhaust why questions. Then we just play, petty gods that we then are, masters of all, making meaning full time rather than seeking it.

  • Did you even read the rest of the post to which you’re ostensibly responding? I think I explained pretty well how we establish that the theory of evolution has passed the process of justification among the experts.

  • It’s only fair to formally invite @richardsnedeker:disqus to join in. This is just an ongoing discussion between us, not a feud or anything. We’ve always been supportive of one another’s efforts here in the digital sandbox.

  • Chuck, since you’re so offended by my mendacity and evasiveness, I’m going to insist you take a 48-hour breather from this blog. Take the time to read the Code of Shemmurabi and come back when you’re in a more civil mood.

  • Thanks as always for your input. What would our amigos here say if they knew that you were a major influence on my anti-scientism crusade?

    It’s not like I have no bones of contention with postmodernism. I’m definitely more of a social constructionist or a correlationist. I think there are valid criticisms to be leveled against the po-mo poohbahs, but you’ve gotta keep it in the ballpark. I still say Rick is way off the mark, and I still say that a lot of po-mo bashing derives from having less familiarity with philosophy (particularly philosophy of science) than with right-wing hatchet jobs.

    The funny thing is that science fans assume that I’m some sort of science denier, as if the only conceivable approaches to the vast historical construct of empirical inquiry are either unquestioning adoration on the one hand or absolute rejection on the other. I happen to think there’s a range of perfectly acceptable options between those two ludicrous extremes. I’ve discussed a lot of legitimate scientific debates here, but the science fans only care about factoid wars and online slapfights like creationism. To me, that’s like being proud of winning a chess match with a four year old. What could be more dull?

    It just goes to show that science may not be a religion, but science fetishism sure is.

  • It isn’t that I dislike reason, or disparage it in any way, I just get frustrated that it is the only tool that people seem to use and often in inappropriate times; this criticism applies to science as well, insofar as science is a rational pursuit (which it mostly — but not entirely — is).

    My sentiments exactly. I always point out (to no apparent avail) that my beef isn’t with science, it’s with scientism. Thinking that science alone provides us with valid knowledge, and that its methodology can be applied to all matters in culture and society, is such a common attitude that people don’t even consider it a bias.

  • ephemerol

    Oh, yes, I absolutely read and pondered everything beforehand.

    I say, ‘ol chap, be a good sport, and do try and follow your own rules, okay Shemmurabbi?

    Thing is, the “experts” are scientists who don’t “ground” one idea with another. Nor are they willing to accept them just on the basis of pointing to how internally coherent and consistent they might happen to be, although that’s an important early hurdle a theory must clear.

    “Justification” may be a legal thing or a religious thing, but in science, that is not a thing. Truth is, I couldn’t really make heads or tails out of what you said the “experts” do. And nowhere did you claim that you were willing to accept their work.

    Trouble is, if they want to publish, they’ve got to go further and ground their theories with observational data, and the fundamental axioms beneath the scientific method prettymuch specify that they’re assuming such observational data originates from and is revealing of an underlying objective reality. So, according to the methodology of these experts, the complete catalog of observational data is the “magic yardstick” you’ve explicitly stated that you think we’re all well aware doesn’t exist, and the degree to which a theory, such as evolution, explains the entire catalog of relevant observational data is what they take as the measure of how well it corresponds to an external objective reality. And that’s the basis upon which they ultimately accept a theory.

    But you’ve already explicitly stated that you reject that basis.

    So I was wondering what basis you use to accept or reject a theory instead.

    Now you’re saying you are willing after all, to accept the work of other people who use a basis to do it which you reject?

    I’m confused. Please explain.

  • Most importantly, nowhere did you claim that you were willing to accept the work of those experts.

    That’s not very fair-minded of you, my friend. I’ve said over and over that I accept the current scientific consensus in every instance: Big Bang, evolution by natural selection, anthropogenic global warming, the efficacy and safety of vaccines, and so on.

    I also never disputed that data and observations are part of scientific argumentation; I never said they concoct theories out of thin air. Scientists and researchers arrange and interpret data in a way that supports their position on whatever matter. My point is that the data points themselves don’t compel agreement and consensus. They’re part of a complex, competitive, and collaborative process of argumentation and justification in the socio-institutional reality of scientific endeavor.

    I’ll reiterate that it’s the usefulness of the theory or hypothesis to the majority of mainstream scientists that makes it acceptable for us as an explanation. If you want to make the epistemic leap between the usefulness of our scientific models and their proximity to objective reality, then I guess you have a lot more tolerance for circular reasoning than I do.

  • Fmr ATrealDonaldTrump

    First, I’m flattered, Shem. And, that’s why you’re on my blogroll, and I look for some of your comments on other blogs.

    Second, I agree that anti pomo stances are often, though not always, motivated by right-wing politics.

    As noted, I’m not against it entirely, just when it goes too far. i probably could have stipulated that more clearly myself.

    Third, you’re right about science fetishism!

    That said, on point 2, I don’t know Rick’s politics. Or whether he’s a scientism guy, or a Gnu Atheist guy (and those kind of overlap at times, as you and I both know). But, should he comment here — and you have tagged him — I hope he’s upfront with where he’s coming from.

    And, thanks for your comment back, and not raising too big of an eyebrow with me subcommenting myself!

    Sadly, I’ve also run into social scientists who don’t have a real problem with applying postmodernist ideas to their social science — but who STILL scoff at the big picture of philosophy in general. (That’s a topic for yet another day.)

  • Fmr ATrealDonaldTrump

    Perhaps the best way of phrasing this is that — natural selection appears much, much, much, closer to reality as we empirically understand it and it would take HEAPS of Sagan or Hume caveats for that to change. Delete two of the “muches” and we’d say that about evolution by natural selection (PLUS sexual selection, per that recent piece of yours) vs, say, Lamarckianism. (I dislike it when some people go too far on epigenetics and call it quasi-Lamarckian.)

  • The funny thing is that science fans assume that I’m some sort of science denier, as if the only conceivable approaches to the vast historical construct of empirical inquiry are either unquestioning adoration on the one hand or absolute rejection on the other.

    No, it’s that you wave red flags at your own; your claims are often presented in intentionally provocative (and often overstated) terms. A person can “get” what you’re on about and still have difficulty suppressing an occasional eyeroll.

    It’s great to have a philosophically-literate voice in the community breaking an occasional window in the science glass house to keep everyone on their toes, and you do good work, but don’t pretend you aren’t riling people up intentionally.

  • I won’t deny I lay it on a little thick sometimes, but I really believe that what motivates anger like Nick’s below is the inability to differentiate between healthy skepticism and science denial.

  • Fmr ATrealDonaldTrump

    On reason (and Shem, Massimo doesn’t like me on this one) because it also undercuts Stoicism to some degree — I regularly remember that Hume said: “Reason is, and ought only to the slave of the passions.” It’s a conceit of H. sapiens to think it’s that rational as a species. But, without those passions — those drives — we wouldn’t “choose.” We wouldn’t “stand up.” Etc., etc.

  • Antonio Alejandro

    The difficultly we face nowadays to go beyond Postmodern culture is that we constitute part of it, for better or for worse. Our image of reality is blurred; we don’t admit the existence of a permanent true, which has been replaced by multiple individual realities, based in our subjective characteristics and contexts.

  • Welcome to Driven To Abstraction!

    Your article exclusively discusses postmodernism in architecture, which is way beyond the scope of my post here. Charles Jencks, though, is a good writer on postmodernism, and I just recently picked up his anthology The Post-Modern Reader.

    Our image of reality is blurred; we don’t admit the existence of a permanent true, which has been replaced by multiple individual realities, based in our subjective characteristics and contexts.

    Should we admit the existence of a “permanent true”? Isn’t the perspectival nature of truth the core concept of postmodernism?

  • Antonio Alejandro

    Yes, it’s true, I’m talking about architecture because it’s my main formation and way of thinking, but, I think we can extrapolate the situation to other fields, then I think that we are still postmodern, and like we are postmodern is going to be very difficult to rise from this way of thinking. And yes, I’m not to “friend”, but Charles Jencks is a good postmodern theorist.

  • Hey, Shem. As always, you provide an illuminating explanation of post-modernism, although as you may have noticed, I’m a little slow on the uptake in this realm. I am always impressed with the intellectual rigor and descriptive effort you bring to your discussions of the ideas that most deeply motivate you. Kudos. And, truth be told (as I’ve said before), I don’t think we’ve ever been that far apart on the value of healthy skepticism about everything. We tend to diverge in correlating what I call material reality and which you view as material apostrophized “reality” that is perpetually corrupted by social, political and other forces that assault reason and cause bias and wrongheadedness. A case in point is where you say: “Thinking that the fact of gravity was just waiting for us to discover it is as weird as thinking that the English word gravity was just waiting for humans to realize it’s the perfect term to describe the set of phenomena to which we currently apply it.” My way of viewing that is that the “fact of gravity” indeed predated human beings and, in fact, was just waiting for us to be cognizant of it, although it’s certainly possible we could have missed it. But whether we knew it or not, the planets would “move” as they always have, thanks to ever-present gravity. So, science, in my view, or rather rational, repeatable observation, has confirmed to my satisfaction that a force does these things (and maybe many others we haven’t discovered yet), and we needed to call it something concrete for clarity, consistency and consensus understanding, so we came up, in English, with “gravity.” But, still, we should fully understand that we may learn more later that may change our thinking about that force and perhaps even its name, and that we are always susceptible to bias and must be aware of it and think through it. But, for now, when we talk about gravity, we’re all generally talking about very much the same concept. This shared understanding is important for communication and progress (in which understanding may change). Therefore, yes, I agree the term “gravity” is a social convention for a consensus view of a force of nature, but no matter what we call it or whether we call it anything, it exists and functions independently. Also, in a sense, gravity was just waiting for humans to slap a label on it, if just to help in discussing it, but the label is independent of the force, as it is independent of the perceiver. It’s just a descriptor of some materiality in what we science-loving folks tend to call “reality,” the whole enchilada of existence. What I’m saying is that, yes, our understandings of everything are affected by social, political, familial and other pressures, but I believe if we concentrate on material facts over these other “soft” influences, we can get far, far closer to “reality” and “truth” than if think more instinctually, more tribally, and don’t give unwieldy credence to what are akin to conspiracy theories, so to speak, about truth. I think of skepticism not as something to debunk falsehoods as much as a way to question facts to make sure we see them as close to what they materially, meaning actually, are. My post that you responded to I tried to make playfully, not mean-spiritedly (if that’s a word) critical of the parts of post-modernism that don’t compute for me. Glad you seemed to accept it in that spirit. In the meantime, I’m down with your robust skepticism about everything, but I place far more credence on palpable material existence than social constructs and think we need to put most of our energy into confirming and better understanding those and guarding against the other. Always honored to learn about your ideas. Sorry for the length here. Your fault; your ideas are too dense for brevity. 😉

  • Glad we could have a dialogue about these matters, Rick.

    I see where you’re coming from, and I just want to reiterate that I don’t really believe that the way we talk about gravity has some sort of causal effect on the Earth’s gravitational pull. I emphasize the social construction angle because the way we talk about reality has a lot of political and social consequences; it becomes a totem of authority in the same way as religious belief does, and can motivate a level of moral and intellectual complacency that is unbecoming of skeptics. We need to recognize the degree to which our knowledge is dependent on the social relations in our culture, and how much it mirrors not reality as much as our society’s needs and expectations concerning knowledge.

    Thanks again for starting the conversation, and for doing me the favor of contributing here.