Monday, July 28, 2008

Postmodernism and the Two Cultures

John Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts has some comments about the "two cultures" debate [see Cocktail Parties and the Two Cultures].

While most scientists see the problem as a lack of respect for science, John examines the other side of the coin. Noting that the Sokal Affair often comes up in these discussion, John reacts to the criticism of postmodernism implicit in that reference. It's true that most scientists agree with Alan Sokal that the worst form of postmodernism is an embarrassment to all disciplines, not just the humanities. However, it's also true that humanities (e.g. English, Sociology, Psychology) have been far more lax than the sciences when it comes to intellectual rigor. In that sense, the humanities have lost respect.

John attempts to explain the good things about postmodernism. I understand his point, although I think might be protesting just a bit too much. He concludes with,
There is a cultural divide between the humanities and the sciences, but it is not a simple one. It has to do, ultimately, with respect. The division is between those who respect science, and those who respect the humanities (and the other human-related subjects, like social science, political science and so on). Yes, we in the humanities treat science like a text. This is because, as we are not doing science, we interface with that vibrant tradition via the texts of science, mostly. And we are being, as philosophers, very "meta" about science - that is, we are discussing its discussions, and reflecting upon its reflections. Textualisation is impossible to avoid, although one can correct for it. But some of us respect science. We respect it for the same reason that Locke, Hume, Kant and Mill respected science - it is where the knowledge is gathered (or made, or constructed out of data, etc.), so it is the single most important part of human cognition and social organisation to a philosopher.
Anyone who has spent much time wading through the pious, obscurantist, jargon-filled cant that now passes for 'advanced' thought in the humanities knew it was bound to happen sooner or later: some clever academic, armed with the not-so-secret passwords ('hermeneutics,' 'transgressive,' 'Lacanian,' 'hegemony,' to name but a few) would write a completely bogus paper, submit it to an au courant journal, and have it accepted . . . Sokal's piece uses all the right terms. It cites all the best people. It whacks sinners (white men, the 'real world'), applauds the virtuous (women, general metaphysical lunacy) . . . And it is complete, unadulterated bullshit – a fact that somehow escaped the attention of the high-powered editors of Social Text, who must now be experiencing that queasy sensation that afflicted the Trojans the morning after they pulled that nice big gift horse into their city.

Gary Kamiya
Yes, it's all about respect. However, I still think scientists are feeling more like Rodney Dangerfield1 than the average sociologist or philosopher. The way I see it, philosophers and others in the humanities often have a very narrow view of science. It's not that they treat science as just another human endeavor, which is bad enough, it's that they treat science as something that's not a part of their disciplines. This exact point is addressed in a lecture Alan Sokal gave earlier this year [What is science and why should we care?]. "Science" is not just about rocket ships and natural selection, it's a way of thinking. A way of thinking that people in the humanities would be wise to adopt. Sokal says,
At a superficial level you could say that my topic is the relation between science and society; but as I hope will become clear, my deeper theme is the importance, not so much of science, but of the scientific worldview—a concept that Ishall define more precisely in a moment, and which goes far beyond the specific disciplines that we usually think of as "science"—in humanity's collective decision making. I want to argue that clear thinking, combined with a respect for evidence—especially inconvenient and unwanted evidence that challenges our preconceptions—are of the utmost importance to the survival of the human race in the twenty-first century.

Of course, you might think that calling for clear thinking and a respect for evidence is a bit like advocating Motherhood and Aple Pie (if you'll pardon this Americanism)—and in a sense you'd be right. Hardly anyone will openly defend muddled thinking or disrespect for evidence. Rather, what people do is to surround these practices with a fog of verbiage designed to conceal from their listeners—and in most cases, I would imagine, from themselves as well—the true implications of their reasoning.
Sokal has it right, as far as I'm concerned. The war between the two cultures is not just about whether you've read Shakespeare or Einstein, it's about how you think. Either you adopt the scientific worldview that values evidence and rationality, or you practice some form of superstition. In this sense, the humanities are just a part of science and not a separate way of knowing.

Sokal emphasizes this point again and again.
I stress that my use of the term "science" is not limited to the natural sciences, but includes investigations aimed at acquiring accurate knowledge of factual matters relating to any aspect of the world by using rational empirical methods analogous to those employed in the natural sciences.
I don't think John Wilkins would agree with this perspective since it makes philosophy—and all other humanties—just a part of a scientific worldview.2

John continues with his analysis of the two cultures problem.
Scientists often do not respect humanists, either. It is a running gag that PZ or Larry Moran will tweak me and others for being mere philosophers, but the gag is that most scientists really do think philosophy is a waste of funds and office space. Likewise they think the same thing about literary studies, history, social sciences, and in fact everything that is not their own speciality. It's not hard to see this as special pleading, but if scientists want respect, they had better show some. It's not impossible: Ed Wilson and Stephen Jay Gould are just two examples of scientists who - for all their faults - respect the humanities. Nobody has the time or energy (or mental capacity) to become experts in both fields; there's barely enough time to become expert in one subspeciality of one discipline of one field); but we can respect those who do learn those limited domains even if they are not our own. This is a plea for respect too, between the analytic and continental styles of philosophy. Neither is totally stupid nor totally on track. Rather than reject the other styles, perhaps what we should do is mutually support each other to do what we do well.
For the record, I'm much closer to Gould on this issue that it appears. I have a great deal of respect for philosophy, provided that it's done correctly. I would strongly support making philosophy and the study of logic a mandatory course in every university. Similarly, there is much to be learned about human behavior—and, let's face it, we are all interested in ourselves even if we know that we are just one species out of ten million—by studying sociology, English literature, and art history. The problem isn't lack of respect for the subject matter as much as lack of respect for the way the subjects are studied.

I'd also like to point out that I'm an equal opportunity curmudgeon—the best kind, in my opinion. While I don't hesitate to point out the muddle-headedness of philosophers like Michael Ruse and Daniel Dennett who pretend to be scientists, I also don't hesitate to make fun of scientists like Ken Miller and Francis Collins who abuse science to support religion.

In the war between rationalism and superstition there are many in the humanities who are on the wrong side. But there are lots of scientists who are wrong as well. I still think that, as a general proposition, there's more respect for the humanities out there than for science. Our society is educating an entire generation of scientific illiterates who are not only unknowledgeable about basic concepts in science but, in most cases, still quite proud of their ignorance.

The next time you hear someone say that science or math is way too hard for them, you should express your sympathy by saying, "Gee, I'm sorry you're too stupid to understand these things. What can I do to help?"


1. or Aretha Franklin

2. To put it even more bluntly. All of the humanities is simply concerned with the behavior of one particular species on this planet. It's just one tiny part of life on this planet, which, in turn, is an infinitesimally small part of the universe. Those who think that the philosophy of Plato is more important than understanding evolution have their priorities all screwed up.

22 comments :

  1. I remember reading the comments from the editors at Social Text in the immediate fallout from the Sokal event. After accusations of academic dishonesty, they said that even though Sokal admitted what he wrote was bullshit didn't matter because text has no relation to author. This sort of willful ignorance is part and parcel of modern literary criticism.

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  2. Science just doesn't tell you much (or much of interest) about specific cultural artifacts or even categories of artifacts. What does Hamlet, the play, mean? How does Hamlet mean? What did the first audiences think of Hamlet? Has the play's impact and meaning changed over time? How? Why is the play still entertaining? Not that the social sciences mightn't lead you in some interesting directions, but the second law of thermodynamics is useless, except as a metaphor. (Hamlet the play does exhibit a certain kind of social entropy, I suppose. Or is that a quantum leap between acts 4 and 5?)

    When you are able to describe or model a protein and understand a bit about the way it works in a cell, does that protein (or, rather, the model of that protein) become a beautiful object, a work of art? Does one contemplate beautiful molecules on Monday? Then knowledge derived from the application of technology and method to proteins has become a cultural artifact, rather like the mirror in Richard II or the hall of mirrors in Macbeth.

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  3. All of the humanities is simply concerned with the behavior of one particular species on this planet. It's just one tiny part of life on this planet, which, in turn, is an infinitesimally small part of the universe. Those who think that the philosophy of Plato is more important than understanding evolution have their priorities all screwed up.

    [Cough] Your family is just one tiny part of the human race, which, in turn, is just one tiny part of life on this planet, which, in turn, is an infinitesimally small part of the universe. Those who think that the welfare of their families is more important than than the welfare of the entire human race and the rest of life on Earth and don't give away all their money to protect those, and let their own children starve if need be, have their priorities all screwed up.

    Beyond the fact that your criteria would suggest to a physicist that all money going into biology should be diverted to physics, there is no other species of life on Earth more likely to screw the place up than us and no other species, other than us, to keep us from doing it. A certain amount of self-knowledge on our part is about the only chance the planet has.

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  4. Actually, I'm pro-science because, as I mentioned, that's where the epistemic action is. I'm merely trying to suggest that extremists aside we can find some common ground and have a useful discussion/discourse.

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  5. "In the war between rationalism and superstition there are many in the humanities who are on the wrong side."


    And, there are at least a few whose interests don't culminate in winning said war. Instead, their job lies in remembering to celebrate the storytellers and their stories. Not to solidify shared cultural stories into inflexible religious "truths" (the superstitions) or to ignore cultural masterworks based on their perceived relevance (the rationalism--oh, Mr. Moran, you know who he is but you just don't care?) but because there can be a greatness in stories--from the anecdotal to the literary--and a storyteller who finds this greatness and shares it has done something worthwhile.

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  6. anopnymous asks,

    What does Hamlet, the play, mean? How does Hamlet mean? What did the first audiences think of Hamlet? Has the play's impact and meaning changed over time? How? Why is the play still entertaining?

    Those are all very interesting questions. How do you propose to answer them? Does your method involve evidence, rationalism, and a scientific worldview or are you going to read the entrails of a goat?

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  7. john pieret says,

    [Cough] Your family is just one tiny part of the human race, which, in turn, is just one tiny part of life on this planet, which, in turn, is an infinitesimally small part of the universe. Those who think that the welfare of their families is more important than than the welfare of the entire human race and the rest of life on Earth and don't give away all their money to protect those, and let their own children starve if need be, have their priorities all screwed up.

    No. There's a big difference between my personal interests and what I claim should be the interests of everyone else.

    My family is important to me but I don't tell everyone else that it should be their highest priority as well.

    I'm a Canadian so I'm interested in Canadian history but I don't tell you that you have to be more interested in Canadian history than in American history.

    We're talking about what the average intelligent person should be aware of, not our own personal priorities.

    But you knew that, didn't you?

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  8. john wilkins says,

    I'm merely trying to suggest that extremists aside we can find some common ground and have a useful discussion/discourse.

    I think the common ground is a scientific worldview. Do you agree, or is there another approach to gathering knowledge that you would prefer?

    How about personal revelation? That seems to be the method preferred by Michael Ruse. :-)

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  9. How about personal revelation? That seems to be the method preferred by Michael Ruse.

    The argument from personal experience. But.. is there any kind of knowledge that does *not* come from personal experience and revelation? Whether it's in the classroom, the lab, or out in the crucible of survival? It's not easy to separate your mind from what it's perceiving. Reality is such a *personal* thing, isn't it?

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  10. My approach to epistemology, and I suspect that of many if not most scientists, is a more or less crude pragmatism. It's good enough if an idea about the world works, in ways we commonly understand. It's good practical knowledge, something we can easily share with those also practiced in the art, which may lead to more practical knowledge.

    I view most of work of philosophers as orthogonal to the scientific enterprise, and I found my unfamiliarity with philosophy no impediment to my engineering career. I never found it actually useful. As Laplace said of God, "Je n'avais pas besoin de cette hypothese-la" (I don't have no need of that there hypothesis).

    Which is not at all to disparage philosophy or the humanities; now that I've retired and become a bum (the preferred term is flaneur), I haunt art museums and concert halls.

    Math isn't the only thing that keeps people from learning the scientific attitude. I got a healthy dose of it at age 11 in a summer science course (a brief introduction to biology with lots of camping trips) a year before I finally got to take algebra. Unfortunately, teachers in K-12 education tend to treat it like history, as just another standard body of knowledge to memorize.

    I'd suggest a middle school life science class incorporating comprehensive sex education. Teach them about the birds and the bees, and also about the bats and the butterflies while you've still got their attention.

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  11. The argument from personal experience. But.. is there any kind of knowledge that does *not* come from personal experience and revelation? Whether it's in the classroom, the lab, or out in the crucible of survival? It's not easy to separate your mind from what it's perceiving. Reality is such a *personal* thing, isn't it?
    Ummm...

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  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  13. "The next time you hear someone say that science or math is way too hard for them, you should express your sympathy by saying, "Gee, I'm sorry you're too stupid to understand these things. What can I do to help?"

    That's what I feel like when you try and talk about postmodernism, Larry. A topic about which you know close to jack. You don't care to know about it, and it shows.

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  14. I can only say that to have science and humanities at each other's throats sounds like a fine conspiracy cooked up by the administrators, lawyers and bankers of the world.

    And Larry, we know that you really really like Gould.

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  15. I've just read 'Philosophy in the Flesh' by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. It is an interesting book which tackles the way in which philosophy (particularly analytic philosophy and the disembodied mind) is based on incorrect models, as shown by cognitive science.

    Lakoff and Johnson reckon that:
    1) The mind is inherently embodied
    2) Thought is mostly unconscious
    3) Abstract concepts are mostly metaphorical.

    Now while I don't necessarily agree with all their arguments, I believe they make some fair points.

    They argure that while postmodernism asserts that science is just one more philosophical narrative with no privileged status to any other philosophical narrative, science nevertheless produces stable, lasting, and reliable results. They then go on to compare 'embodied scientific realism' aginst the philosophies of the early Greek metaphysics, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kantian morality, Analytic Philosophy and Chomsky's philosophy and the theory of Rational Action. Evolution, morality, spirituality, god, and altruism get drawn into the debate too.

    Their conclusion is:

    "Cognitive Science, the science of mind and the brain, has in its brief existence been enormously fruitful. It has given us a way to know ourselves better, to see how our physical being - flesh, blood, and sinew, hormone, cell, and synapse - and all things we encounter daily in the world make us who we are."

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  16. It's about time humanists understood that biochemistry is the only reality. Absolutely everything is reducible to biochemistry - even subatomic physics, since subatomic physics is just a collection of mental ideas, and mental ideas are reducible to biochemistry. Ignorant people (like sanders, etc), need to wake up and recognize that Larry is alot wiser than they are, and he's light-years ahead of them in understanding the core principles of life, the universe, and everything.

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  17. Professor Moran writes, re the meaning(s) of Hamlet: "Those are all very interesting questions. How do you propose to answer them? Does your method involve evidence, rationalism, and a scientific worldview or are you going to read the entrails of a goat?"

    Well, of course the answers involve evidence, argument from evidence, attempts at generalization (theory), etc. (Consulting goat entrails is a form of physiology). It might even involve experimental evidence--e.g. recording and analyzing audience reaction and that sort of thing. In that sense, literary (or theatre) criticism is "science". And that's what humanists do with texts and performance, although their methodologies (and ideological contexts) vary. For example, you can and should analyze Hamlet from the point of view of its representation of and comment on relationships between mothers and sons, fathers and daughers, kings and queens, men and women. And, if you accept the proposition that men have, historically, dominated and oppressed women, you are very liable to make some very interesting and perhaps disturbing observations about Hamlet and its reception. This too is "science". And again, this is what humanists do. Curiously, you can do it without knowing the first thing about physics and biochemistry, just as you can do physics and biochemistry without knowing the first thing about Hamlet.

    The scientific theory that leads to literary criticism is the theory of evolution (and some of its potential implications as applied to Homo sapiens). When and why did language evolve? When members of the first African population spoke, did they tell stories? Sing songs? Make myths? What is the neural and genetic basis of language? Is there a genetic basis of myth and story-telling? What if story-tellers were deemed to be more desirable mates than non-story-tellers? Would they have had more mating success and left more genes to the next generation? And, if that were the case, wouldn't it mean that cultural prowess conferred a selective advantage? Can we propose a real link between culture and the differential reproduction of the human genotype? Male and female humans idolize actors and singers; is that a clue?

    All very interesting, but of course it still doesn't tell you much about Hamlet as a unique artifact, although it may go some way to explaining, in very general terms, why that play (among others) is so concerned with incest, filial obligation and death....

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  18. Personally, I like Hofstadter's handle on the issue as explained in Godel, Escher, Bach: There is a line of causality from physics, chemistry, biochemistry, biology, psychology, to sociology. While the universe can and is rightly reduced to the level of the atomic particle, there are too many intermediate steps between atoms and culture for us to form any meaningful overlap between the two arenas. Of course some overlap exists between say chemistry and biology, or psychology and biology. But how many psychiatrists can make sense of real-time quantitative PCR data if they saw it?

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  19. Sandlers:

    Well yeah. Philosophically, postmodernism deconstructs to solipsism and disappears, and life's too short to waste too much reading time on something that baroque and fundamentally without foundation - it reminds me a lot of Roman Catholic theology but without the beauty of mythology. As literary criticism, it was killing my enjoyment of reading and seemed to be more about the critics' biases, so I dropped my English minor. As art, it appears from the outside to be an academicized Dada, which rather misses the point. It's also just plain boring- conceptualism was already getting old and trite by the 1980s.

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  20. Larry:

    We're talking about what the average intelligent person should be aware of, not our own personal priorities.

    And I was contrasting your ideal of what some set of universal priorities should look like to the "personal" priorities of the human species. You have no more balance in your prescription for what the average intelligent person should be aware of than has the person who says you should give up your personal priorities for the good of the species / all life on Earth. I don't have to deny that the human species / all life on Earth is important to say "so are personal priorities," anymore than I have to say science is unimportant to say Plato is.

    But you knew that, didn't you?

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  21. Norm,

    "Philosophically, postmodernism deconstructs to solipsism and disappears"

    Only when taken to the extreme. Similarly, rationalist extremism degenerates into thinking the human mind fits the universe like a glove (representationism).

    The middle ground finds respect for both rationalism and postmodernism while rejecting the extremist fallacies of solipsism and representationism.

    Your desire not to study postmodernism is reflected in your selection of the worst of postmodernims as strawman representatives (That is, what little you know is what you have cherry-picked for the purpose of criticism)

    Actually, good postmodernism has solid scientific basis and has been driven forward importantly by Biologists. Investigate into LUDWIG FLECK, who did history of sifilis research and is Kuhn's intellectual daddy.

    Then you have the neurobiologists. The study of how the brain constructs even basic forms of perception (for instance, color) has profound implications. If you're a biologist, you'll know to take neurobiology seriously (but then, if you are a biochemist or geneticist, maybe you don't)

    Gould is not too bad a postmodernist either, though he always finishes off like a harmless comformist good ole chap that nobody really remembers what he was complaining about to begin with.

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  22. Also, read historian and philosopher JOSÉ ORTEGA Y GASSET on rationalism vs. vitalism. He also advocated a "middle path" (ratiovitalism!)

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