Jun 25 2007

Postmodernism – Sophisticated Nonsense

Sometimes really smart people say or write incredibly dumb things, as I was recently reminded while reading Stanley Fish’s June 17th NYT commentary, Atheism and Evidence. I’m sure this applies to me as well, although for obvious reasons we have a hard time recognizing our own ignorance. The reasons for this apparent paradox are several. First, intelligence itself is a multifarious thing, and people can be smart in some ways while being intellectually mediocre in others. Also, no one can know everything, so we all have lacunes in our model of reality. We all also have subjective perspectives, biases, and idiosyncratic patterns of thought.

This is precisely why intellectual authority cannot reside in an individual. All scholarly and creative endeavors are enhanced by the community effort – the collaboration of many individuals brings to bear varying perspectives, fills in holes in knowledge, roots out quirky thinking, and smashes discordant biases against each other.

Often, however, the institutions and other structures of our society allow for the persistence of subcultures – islands of stability of ideas and patterns of thought insulated from outside assault. In fact I think that society is characterized by a patchwork of such subcultures and that our collective goal should be to breakdown the barriers that prevent or slow the open exchange of ideas that work out conflicting notions.

One such persistent island of stability is the application of postmodernist philosophy to science, and that is exactly what Stanley Fish’s recent editorial does. In this context postmodernism is the notion that all ideas and beliefs can be best understood as subjective human storytelling – a narrative dominated by culture and bias with no special relationship to the truth. When applied to science it negates the implication of methodology and reduces all scientific research to a cultural narrative.

Philosophers of science have already rooted out the flaws in such reasoning (in philosophical parlance, postmodernism confuses the context of discovery with the context of later justification), but the humanities subculture within academia did not get the memo. They have embraced postmodernism as it applies to science and perversely cling to it. My personal completely biased speculation to explain this is twofold: first academics whose education is largely confined to the humanities do not understand the methodology of science, and second they like the fact that postmodernist philosophy brings the sciences into the fold of the humanities. In fact it harkens back to the pre-scientific era when science was “natural philosophy,” just another sub-branch of philosophy.

Fish applies postmodernist reasoning in his review of the three recent atheist manifestos by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. Fish focuses on the question of whether or not science can ever explain morality, although he does not take a firm position on this question (or the question of atheism itself, as he takes pains to point out) but rather uses it to make the point that Harris and Dawkins’s position that science can explain morality is nothing more than faith, no different than religion.

Fish writes:

“Dawkins exhibits the same pattern of reasoning. He believes, like Harris, that ethical facts can be explained by the scientific method in general and by the thesis of natural selection in particular. If that thesis is assumed as a baseline one can then generate Darwinian reasons, reasons that are reasons within the Darwinian system, for the emergence of the behavior we call ethical. One can speculate, as Dawkins does, that members of a species are generous to one another out of a desire (not consciously held) to preserve the gene pool, or that unconditioned giving is an advertisement of dominance and superiority. These, he says, are “good Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or ‘moral’ towards each other.”

“Exactly! They are good Darwinian reasons; remove the natural selection hypothesis from the structure of thought and they will be seen not as reasons, but as absurdities. I “believe in evolution,” Dawkins declares, “because the evidence supports it”; but the evidence is evidence only because he is seeing with Darwin-directed eyes. The evidence at once supports his faith and is evidence by virtue of it.”

This is the “paradigm” argument of Thomas Kuhn, one of the fathers of postmodernism. Evidence for evolution is only evidence if we assume the evolution paradigm in the first place.

Later, in an attempt to head off the obvious criticism of this position, Fish writes:

“Some respondents raised the issue of falsification. Is there something that would falsify a religious faith in the same way that some physical discoveries would falsify natural selection for Dawkins and Harris? As it is usually posed, the question imagines disconfirming evidence coming from outside the faith, be it science or religion. But a system of assumptions and protocols (and that is what a faith is) will recognize only evidence internal to its basic presuppositions. Asking that religious faith consider itself falsified by empirical evidence is as foolish as asking that natural selection tremble before the assertion of deity and design. Falsification, if it occurs, always occurs from the inside.”

This is consistent with Kuhn, who basically said that paradigms can only be judged from within the paradigm itself, not falsified from the outside. And when one paradigm shifts to another it happens for quirky and subjective (i.e. cultural) reasons. Kuhn and Fish miss the whole “later justification” thing that is central to scientific methodology. They miss that science itself is not a set of beliefs but a set of methods. So in practice the only “basic presuppositions” that are necessary to falsify evolution are those of scientific methodology – not evolution itself, as Fish falsely thinks (so one does not have to see with Darwinian eyes to see evidence for evolution, only scientific eyes). Fish does not seem to understand that scientific theories make predictions that must be formulated in such as way that they can be falsified by objective observations. He also does not seem to appreciate that scientific methods used to test those predictions are designed specifically to control for the assumptions of the researcher.

In other words, science is an open system of inquiry that is subject by its very methods to outside falsification – from external reality itself. Faith, on the other hand, is a closed belief system reliant upon authority or revelation.

Fish then creates and destroys a straw man when he writes:

“But what about reasons? Isn’t that what separates scientific faith from religious faith; one is supported by reasons, the other is irrational and supported by nothing but superstition? Not really.”

This is completely wrong, and a good summary of the core misunderstanding of postmodernist criticism of science. “Reason” is not what separates science from faith, but rather, as stated above, it is methodology. Fish seems to think that science is about inventing reasons to explain specific beliefs (the context of discovery). Rather, science is about testing those reasons against reality (later justification).

It is disheartening that while doing battle (in the cultural metaphorical sense) with the forces of ignorance, pseudoscience and antiscience, the defenders of science must also keep a wary eye at our academic comrades across the hall in the humanities departments. The frustrating persistence of postmodernist ideas that have already been discredited by their own philosophers is a serious problem. It likely is due to poor communication, slowing the necessary free exchange of ideas that is supposed to root out such nonsense. This is turn is likely due to the fact that those who specialize in the humanities do not generally understand science, and scientists do not generally understand philosophy or how to communicate with their colleagues in the humanities.

Perhaps the blogosphere will broaden the lines of communication and succeed where more traditional institutions have failed.

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