Very Poor “postmodern” Thought, a Confession

Over at Cocktail Party Physics, one of my very favorite blogs, where (by the way?) there are links to “the internet all atwitter” about the “Blogs for Brownback” website (he’s one of the three Republican candidates for President who don’t believe in evolution) — and this website that was supposedly set up  by supporters calls heliocentrism a piece of indoctrination by liberals (nobody seems to know if it’s a satire or for real — I vote for satire)….

I’d better start over. Over at Cocktail Party Physics, I got into a conversation about science and postmodern thinking with a physicist who alluded to the Alan Sokal hoax paper published back in 1996 in a cultural studies journal. Sokal was a physicist at New York University who got fed up with the trendiness and shallowness of postmodern rhetoric and so-called thinking, and wrote a hilariously funny paper asserting that Quantum Mechanics supports the “feminist, poststructuralist critique of the substantive content” of science. The article is 11 pages long, with pages of bibiolography and more pages of really, really funny notes about Lacan and Derrida and particle physics, adding up to a grand total of 40 pages!

Now I’m mentioning this hoax for two reasons. 1) it reminds me that a confession is long overdue on this weblog from me as a literary theorist.  Yes, okay, there is, I need to admit it, a lot of really vapid and shoddy stuff out there in the U. S. posing as postmodern thought….

My poor son at university has had to endure a couple of utterly useless classes filled with postmodern tripe tryong to pass for profundity, and students of mine will recognize my old refrain: “It’s because the U. S. never went through decades of structuralist thought and methodology, as the Continent did, before the arrival of poststructuralism.”

Deconstruction, especially, has been in the U. S. a trendy bandwagon embraced rhetorically with little real understanding by some. You can’t read Derrida without a real immersion in (post)structuralism. Nowadays, I would add that we don’t know phenomenology over here either, the way the Continent does, and you need that just as much. Our North American ideas of Husserl, Heidegger, Derrida, and others are like the rough idea most of us have of Godel’s theorum, without the slightest idea of how he arrived at it…. (It’s fascinating — more on this later)

Let’s stop pretending that anyone, no matter how highly trained in their discipline and how broadly educated, can grasp the fundamentals of another rigorous discipline without years of training and work. And who has all this time? I have worked so incredibly hard to gain the grasp of physics and of the history of physics that I possess and I have taught for years in this area and yet my grasp of physics is infantile when I read the cutting edge cosmology and particle physics going on at cosmic variance, for example. (I was happy to read a chemist on that blog saying “you guys could understand everything I do, because it’s all just basic physics, but I can’t begin to understand what you guys in cutting-edge physics are doing nowadays.” Hurray! Company even among the scientists.

Lately I’ve been studiously reading the Darwinian spokespersons and learning amazingly helpful tools for thought from them. I’m going to present some of these new paradigms in future posts. But when it comes to their thoughts about God and soul and mind, then I’m in my own area of specialization and they are way out of their fields.

And I also gotta tell you that Dawkins (The God Delusion) has no idea at all about the depths of philosophical thought to be found in Christian theology and religious practice, and Terry Eagleton is perfectly right to tax him about this, since Dawkins is writing against Christianity among other religons. (Good converstion on cosmic variance about this issue of Dawkins’ credentials.) Yet this lack of credentials and this utter lack of any deep understanding is only to be expected. How can any of us be this interdisciplinary? And yet, shouldn’t we be talking to one another about belief in God?

Yes, but not this way. This arrogant and intellectually shallow way. (I don’t think Dawkins even knows he is being arrogant. He seems a charming person. It’s that tragic Oxford analytic close-mindedness, if I may say so, that has wounded me all of my life.)  Our inevitable disciplinary limitations should lead us all to epistemological humility.

Not to the grotesquely huge oversimplifications and unfounded leaps Dawkins is so examplary of, in his arguments against religion and against belief in the divine. He hasn’t a ghost of a notion of what “divinity” entails in rigorous thought, or else he would know that he is a believer in God, as, in his charming honesty, he makes so apparent in the 3 quarks daily interview.  (But look at the anti-theistic denials in the comments there! Link is in my post on Richard Dawkins.)

The scientific apologists against God, the self-declared atheists (who all seem to feel deep awe before the universe and its enormous complexity and order), are quick to say that there is a vast difference between “sophisticated theology” and your everyday run-of-the-mill Christian religion, which they equate with American Fundamentalism and creationism. (This is like equating Islam with a militant jihadist movement, except that many Fundamentalists, unlike jihadists, have profound understandings of God and are simply scientifically and politically naive. Not all of them, maybe not even most of them — who could know? Well, maybe the same is true of some of these poor young jihadists, too.)

Yes, creationism and Intelligent Design need to be addressed, but it takes a closer analysis than simply supposing the problem is reducible to belief in God! Thank goodness for atheists like Sean Carroll, who points out in his witty review of Dawkins that you can’t just blame Northern Ireland on “religion.”

So look, I don’t step in and correct physicists in their work in their discipline — how could I? Yet I can step in and make some historical and philosophical interventions relative to the assumptions scientists are making when they claim their way of thinking is simply, purely, “reason” — and that other fields and conclusions about other subjects are prima facie irrational. (And boy, is that resented in our highly charged political climate.)

If you look at the Sokal article and read the first three paragraphs, you will see a vivid and wonderful misrepresentation of the relationship between scientists and postmodern thinkers, boiled accurately down to a hypothetical, stark “yes/no” disagreement about the existence of “an external world.”

Utterly wrong as this is, it seems to be precisely the stereotypical picture that most scientists have of the boogey-man they call “postmodernism.” I got a wonderful comment a couple days ago about the shock and dismay a scientist who deeply respects and loves science experienced reading about what postmoderns “said about science,” and I know that my own very thoughtful physicist colleagues at my university went rigid with hostility at the notion of any epistemological limitations on science, for the same reasons.

Yet where do genuine postmodern thinkers say there is no external world, or that the substantive content of science is “merely socially constructed,” or that science isn’t a valid way of knowing?  It’s this yes/no, either/or, dichotomizing manner of thinking that is itself impeding the thoughtful conversations we are called to, if we embrace the vision of the arts and sciences.

As you know if you’ve been reading me, I tend to trace this reductive dualism to the dominant Cartesian dualisms that founded scientific modernity in the 17th and 18th centuries. (How very “postmodern” of me!)  

Scientific advances have moved us way beyond that kind of dualism, though, looking at it from historical studies and from theory of knowing. (Not Anglo-American theory of knowing, I admit, but Greco-European theory of knowing, and also lingustics — against not Chomskian linguistics, which is as dualistic as hell, but Continental linguistics again.)

So what am I to do about this empasse (the empasse between science and theory that so effectively blocks understanding), in the context of this highly politicized hostility between embattled camps here in the U. S.

Well, I’m going back to my deepest beliefs and commitments:  that science is rigorous and beautiful, and that theory is rigorous and beautiful, and that so is faith, taken as a way of knowing, and in particular as a way of knowing in the (prescientific) tradition of Western theology and practice, which I happen to know best.

It doesn’t work for me to argue the long historical overview, because people “hear” me as merely uttering the stereotypical postmodern message that is captured and parodied so well in the Sokal paper….

Better for me, then, to just do it.  To work respectfully and closely in and with the beautiful. To explain by reading what’s beautiful in the Darwinians, for instance, and what’s beautiful in Plato or Augustine or Aquinas, for another instance, and to practice the thoughtful conversation that I would wish to argue for, between “camps” that are so falsely and needlessly and wastefully divided.  Always remembering, of course, that I know, as the Greek philosophers knew, that “the beautiful things are difficult.”

To close this post, what’s especially beautiful is that there are persons out there reading these feeble and groping attempts on this weblog toward conversation, which is a deep grace I didn’t used to believe in, because I didn’t know it was true, until this “empirical proof” arrived.

By the way, this kind of reading the text, such as I did in my post on Kevin Hart’s Guide to Postmodernism, takes time. I’m working at fever pitch, but I don’t know how often I’ll be posting, so put me on a feed aggregator, folks, if only you know how to do that.  (I haven’t been able to figure it out, for the set of blogs I want to check in with….I’m just a lowly humanist, after all.)

18 thoughts on “Very Poor “postmodern” Thought, a Confession

  1. HI

    Thank you for responding to my comment the other day. I would like to respond when I have time, but it will take some effort. I would just like to acknowledge about it and just make a brief comment about today’s post.

    I must admit that much of my impression of postmodernism was formed by the Sokal hoax and the so-called science wars of the 90’s, although I must also mention that a parallel battle was fought in my home country as well. (I might add that there was a postmodernist among the witnesses defending Intelligent Design in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial. But is it an example of a Northe American version?)

    It was refreshing to hear your criticism of “stuff out there in the U. S. posing as postmodern thought.” But you left the Continent off the hook. Is it entirely fair? After all, Sokal teamed up with the Belgian, Jean Brichmont, to write Fashionable Nonsense. It collected writings by (I believe all) Europeans and some of the most memorable (not in a positive way) were the ones by (Belgian? French?) Luce Irigaray.

    I guess the critique of “Cartesianism” (I’m using quotation marks because I don’t want to misuse a word that I don’t understand) may be OK, but I wonder if an impulse to distance yourself away from it can be an uncritical, even dogmatic force.

  2. Janet

    You are already right there at the very heart of the issue, in your last paragraph. YES, the attempt to distance myself from something that has hurt me (Cartesianism) can be “an uncritical, even dogmatic force.” Your point, I believe, is extremely insightful.
    This is something I battle in myself all the time, in fact. My most cherished insight from Derrida’s lifework is the understanding that we are (by definition) shaped and formed by the very things we fight against most (for otherwise why would we be fighting against them?) Therefore, we cannot be effective by directly attack a structure in place without becoming its reverse image (which amounts to the same thing as being it). And we can’t attack it without entrenching it further. So how do we work for progress and against oppression? Only by reading the structures so faithfully and fairly that we are able to introduce “play” into their rigidities, so to speak. (Play in every sense, including the physics sense.) And most of all, to introduce play into our own psychic structures….
    I think this is why I’m going to stop attacking or arguing against Cartesianism, and just read the Cartesian and other strands in certain very rich and interesting texts in current scientific and theoretical works.
    I think very highly of Luce Irigaray and will look into the appearance of her work in such contexts. Another physicist also mentioned her specifically, as a postmodern attacking science. I doubt she is denying scientific knowing, but I should see exactly what is bothering people so much. I know she is crying out against the oppressive masculinist structures of assumption that used to (and still do) surround and pervade the scientific enterprise, in spite of all its wonderful attributes. It is hard to hear and consider these things about institutions we deeply respect, whether it is science or postmodern thought or the Church or whatever it may be, but I think we have to do it. There is nothing more valuable than a good and faithful critique. More later….

  3. Janet, that point is well taken (and well remembered!) that Derrida, deconstruction, and post-modernism came here without the structuralism necessary to understand it. I struggle with this myself as I read Lacan.
    I don’t like Dawkins at all, and apparently there is a south park hoax on him that supposed to be great. Probably not out on DVD yet, and unfortunately not on UTUBE either that I could find

  4. breid

    Janet, last Tuesday I was able to go to Elliott Bay Books and hear Peter Irons talk about his new book, God on Trial. Having read a couple of article-reviews lately about Dawkins, Hitchens, and others I was really curious to see what Irons would have to say. The book focuses on 7 trials that have gone to the Supreme Court, each concerning some symbol or “use” (such as “Under God” in the pledge of allegiance) of religion. I came away in complete awe of how Irons was able to defuse these controversies and focus on what he sees as the tragedy of them: i.e., the division of community. All that to say this, that I think you are trying to do the same thing, though from the opposite direction. I so much appreciate your tone, your lack of defensiveness, and your willingness to keep coming back to the table to have this rich conversation. I STILL disagree with you about the body / soul split, but what great talk! Bethany

  5. Janet

    Okay, Bethany and Hi, let’s get into this thing about Cartesianism and the soul.
    First, Descartes established a brand-new way of thinking that spread across Europe like wildfire in the 17th century and became the Enlightenment’s basic theory of knowing. It enabled the scientific enterprise to take off so briliiantly. Besides being a brilliant mathematician, Descartes was obsessed with finding absolute certitude.
    Strangely, this is NEW in Western history. (Nobody earlier thought human knowing could be certain, because of our finite limitations; and surely not that our knowledge would be equivalent to a God’s eye view.) But Descartes wanted to know with absolute certainty, and he thought he found a way to do this. (This is the origin that developed into the “fact,” by the way. Scientific facts are functions of theory, however, and shift as theory shifts. This is not a defect in science, btw.)
    Descartes wanted to find an absolutely impregnable foundation for knowledge. (This is called “foundationalism” and you won’t find even modern rationalist philosophers defending this any longer.) The Cartesian paradigm has not withstood the test of time. But it is still the assumed stance in No America, as far as I can see.
    How does a human mind (Descartes always thinks of a single mind, though he wants other single minds to arrive at the identical conclusions. Prior to this time, knowing had belonged always to communal enterprises of knowing; disciplinary communities with traditions.)
    So, here’s how we find certitude. The truly scientific knower divorces himself from every personal formative influence (language, culture, personal history) and becomes a neutral SUBJECT who studies the OBJECT as it really is. (This is why every scientific observer will come to the identitical conclusion.) This “objective” way of knowing establishes an impersonal, universal, absolute, neutral, and unassailable “knowledge.”
    People who don’t use this method are “subjective” — they rely on the vagaries of language, culture, personal history, personality, and so forth) and so they cannot make any claims to knowledge or truth, only to esthetic or personal experiences. (See this on the science blogs all the time!) Non-scientific fields have no knowledge or truth.
    The Cartesian paradigm also introduces for the first time in the West a binary split between nature and mind. Nature is res extensa, the stuff that extends in space (in that absolute space of Newton that no longer is held to exist since Einstein and QM). Nature is MATTER, inert, dead, mechanical. Only in humans and God do we find the OTHER STUFF, MIND. Mind (or spirit or soul) is immaterial; does not extend in space. Hence the Cartesian problem arises of how the human body and the mind communicate (through the pineal gland, Descartes thought).
    Notice that this binary split makes human and divine mind the same stuff, though God’s mind is “infinite,” he says.
    Notice that this binary split also makes animals soulless and without mind. They are machines, as are babies who lack mature minds, and so they don’t feel pain or reason. Men are more objective and women more subjective. And so on.
    I do feel almost a kind of rage at the injustice of this picture of the natural world, of animals, and of women. We have all been abused and denigrated and subjugated and most of all not appreciated or respected, as a direct result of this early scientific theory of knowing. But science is so much greater than this defect, and has outgrown it, by and large. I love the humility of science, which makes the dogmatism of defenders of science as the only site of so-called reason even more tragic and misplaced. Does this make any sense?
    And Bethany, what do you want to do with “soul”? Is it something different from “mind” for you, as a poet? I know you have said that it hides, something Aristotle said about nature, by the way, that “nature loves to hide….”

  6. Janet

    No, thank you for your indefatigable efforts (and those of the other Razas) to bring us those fascinating thought pieces from all over the place! What did I ever do without you?

  7. Rick

    If I may enter into this conversation, even it this may well seem to you as terribly naive.

    In a comment above you suggest that “Cartesian paradigm”, in which a “knower divorces himself from every personal formative influence (language, culture, personal history) and becomes a neutral SUBJECT who studies the OBJECT as it really is. (This is why every scientific observer will come to the identical conclusion)” was “a brand-new way of thinking” that “spread like wildfire in the 17th century”.

    However, it seems that, even back to the Greeks (and before) this “way of thinking” can be found. Euclid’s theorem (the “pons asinorum”) that “In isosceles triangles the angles at the base equal one another, and, if the equal straight lines are produced further, then the angles under the base equal one another” is known to be true not because of an “the vagaries of language, culture, personal history, personality, and so forth”, but is known to be true through a process of solving theorems in which triangles are looked at as “they really are”, and as such is true for everyone, everywhere (or no-one, anywhere). Do you speak Chinese and line in a Confucian culture? It’s true. Do you speak ancient Nahuatl and live in pre-contact Central America? It true. We can imagine cultures and societies for which this fact is not known, for whom it is considered unimportant, or for whom it would never be considered at all, and even a culture that routinely denies it, but we cannot imagine a culture for which it is false. Similarly, for right triangles a2 + b2 = c2 it true for everyone (or for no-one), regardless of their cultures, languages, etc. They may not know it, they may not care about it, they may deny it, but is it true nonetheless.

    So it seems the “Cartesian paradigm” has a much longer history than Descartes and 17th Century Europe.

    It seems to me that with the development of science this “mathematical” approach was expanded from pure mathematics to other areas, including the natural world. It was realized at some point that, for example, Venus exhibited phases like the moon, and did so for everyone. It did not exhibit phases for Italians and not for Spaniards, or for Protestants and not for Catholics, but for everyone. There are those who do not know this, who lack the means to observe it, and those who don’t care about it at all. There may be those who didn’t like the fact, or who considered it “inconvenient” for some reason, but nevertheless, Venus is out there, showing phases, regardless of my, or your, or anyone else’s preferences on, interests in, or ability to observe, the matter.

    And, like Euclid’s triangles, if the observation is the same regardless of the observer, the reason is the same regardless of the observer; Just as an isosceles triangle does not care who is looking at it and change its base angles accordingly, Venus does not say it itself “Oh, Suzy is looking at me so I will show phases because I am orbiting the Sun in an orbit with a smaller radius than that of Earth”, or “Johnny is looking at me so I will show phases because it is aesthetically pleasing”; and certainly not “Pat is looking at me so I won’t show phases”. (OK, I admit that is somewhat of a parody, but I hope it makes the point)

    But is this not, at its heart, a “way of thinking” found in mathematics from Euclid and before? Extended into a new area, perhaps, but the same way of thinking that there are truths about the universe that we can observe, or figure out, that are in fact independent of the observer or the observer’s status. As well, of course, as the same feeling in both cases that to do so is, in some sense, important (otherwise, why do it?).

    Science is based in part upon an understanding that, in some sense, it the observations disagree with the theory, it is the theory that is wrong.
    Thus we need to keep in mind the difference between the observable facts, and our theories to explain those facts: a theory as to why Venus shows phases could be wrong, and someone can believe that Venus shows phases without accepting our theory as to why Venus show phases (something often, in my experience, denied in the proevolution-antitheism blogs, who seem to often opine as if rejection of their theory logically commits one to deny the observations that their theory explains. But then they are doing politics, not science.)

  8. Janet

    Your observations are very thoughtful, Rick, and I’ve been pondering them. In fact, I’ve just been inspired to draft a post, based on the opening for possible better understanding between scientists and theorists that your comments seem to provide.

    What a way to spend a Saturday, huh?! No, I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else….

    I’ve also worked this week on taking you all into a dialogue of Plato’s in which Socrates explains what a discipline “scientific” (in the Greek sense). It might help to place alongside our own Cartesian paradigm, which we take for granted, a very different paradigm (the one used by Euclid and Plato).

    We postmodernists are always complaining about the Cartesian paradigm, but to very little effect, it seems. Paradigms are elusive things. Unless a person studies them carefully, a person doesn’t see them at all. It’s the old maxim, “We don’t know we’re looking at the world through colored glasses until we take them off and look through another pair.”

    Well, I’m thinking about giving my readers some glasses of a different color (the color “Greek”) to look through! But I do agree about Rick’s characterization of the excellent way that science works. But the Greeks thought all the arts and sciences worked just as rigorously as that, in their own ways.

    How did they come to that conclusion? They looked at things with a different paradigm for knowing, and theirs was the one that originally founded the revolutionary idea of the arts-and-sciences education, back in the schools of Plato and Aristotle 2400 years ago!

    While I’m cogitating over these future posts, I’d like to know what some of the rest of you would say in response to Rick’s remarks? He’s pointing to the wonder and glory of science. But let’s carry this discussion further if we can.


  9. Rick

    In addition to what I said before, these is another, very important aspect to science that seems not to be as widely recognized as the universality that I argued before; it appears to be even more in the “background” in that so forms a part of our (speaking as on trained in physics) thought processes that we have a hard time even imagining that there is any other way of thinking.

    I am sure that philosophers have a technical term for it that I don’t know, but I term it “comprehensiveness”. It is basically the belief that what we are trying to do in science is “model the world”. This goes beyond a pragmatic “get the right answer to the problem at hand” (which, although right answers are a result of good scientific theories, is not at all what science is about), but goes to the deeper “does our theory capture the truth of the matter”. What this means in practice is that a theory must not only capture the phenomenon for which it was originally developed, but for any other phenomena to which it can be related. For example, a theory designed to predict the positions of the sun, moon, and planets in the sky may, in the pragmatic sense, “give the right answer” as to their positions against the so-called fixed stars, but if it incorrectly gives the apparent angular size of the moon throughout the years then it is not a “good” scientific theory because of its lack of comprehensiveness.

    Prior to Newton, physics drew a distinction between celestial mechanics and terrestrial mechanics; the movement of the planets and the movement of objects here on earth were taken as being different. Newtonian mechanics erased the difference between them, connecting two areas that were previously separate. Note the comprehensiveness of the type I am discussing here; the bringing together of seemingly disparate areas into one, connected theory.

    It is widely believed these days that ~65 million years ago a large meteor hit the earth, causing the mass extinction of species, including most of the dinosaurs. The original paper presenting this theory in a scientific manner is another example of this “comprehensiveness” in action. The problem at hand is “the extinction of the dinosaurs”. The evidence used began with the amount of iridium in clay layers in various rock strata throughout the world (iridium? what does that have to do with dinosaurs?) and the chemical makeup of terrestrial and meteoric material (what does the chemical composition of meteors have to do with dinosaurs?). Evidence was cited from studies of the effects of the eruption of the volcano Krakatoa in 1883 (volcano eruptions millions of years after the dinosaurs disappeared? surely irrelevant.) Very little about dinosaurs (other than that they went extinct) was used in the article. But it did two things. It connected up the theory with the rest of scientific knowledge, and by doing so it was much more than a “opinion”, and by doing so it showed that science could be done on the question, by pointing out that, and giving an example how, there could be measurable consequences that could be obtained, evaluated, and sorted out, and thus the theory could be tested.
    This ability of the theories, and the facts supporting the theories, allow the theories to be comprehensively extended to beyond their original ranges of applicability and tied up into a single whole.

    So, in addition to the universality I already discussed, (it doesn’t matter who is doing the observing, the results will be the same) coupled with this comprehensiveness (if a theory gives wrong answers in any area it is a wrong theory) together is what give science its distinctive contours.

    Of course, it is not quite that simple, since theories are complex it is not always clear when and why they are giving a “wrong answer”. But the idea that a theory should be comprehensive stands behind science as a defining characteristic, however much in practice there may be problems with its application in individual cases.

  10. Rick

    Janet, you said: “We postmodernists are always complaining about the Cartesian paradigm, but to very little effect, it seems.”

    I hope thus does not come across as too blunt, but I would think that dense theory is never going to win anybody over. What you need is a story, a “myth” if you will. A story that will capture in a narrative the meaning of your post-modernism.

    We have discovered a planet orbiting the star HD 209458.

    What is the post-modern story of this discovery? I assume it in not “a bunch of influential guys found it in their interest to invent a planet around another star”, which, is seems, is the “post-modern’ story as it is being actually told to us science types.

    Or, more simply (at least in my physics background sort of way), is there, according to post -modernist understanding, a planet around HD 209458? Is there in fact, in reality, in an actual physical made-of-atoms sort of way, a planet around HD 209458? A planet that was there before we discovered it?

  11. Rick

    Janet, you said: “We postmodernists are always complaining about the Cartesian paradigm, but to very little effect, it seems.”

    I hope thus does not come across as too blunt, but I would think that dense theory is never going to win anybody over. What you need is a story, a “myth” if you will. A story that will capture in a narrative the meaning of your post-modernism.

    We have discovered a planet orbiting the star HD 209458.

    What is the post-modern story of this discovery? I assume it in not “a bunch of influential guys found it in their interest to invent a planet around another star”, which, is seems, is the “post-modernist” story as it is being actually told to us science types.

    Or, more simply (at least in my physics background sort of way), is there, according to post -modernist understanding, a planet around HD 209458? Is there in fact, in reality, in an actual physical made-of-atoms sort of way, a planet around HD 209458? A planet that was there before we discovered it?

  12. Janet

    I think you are absolutely right that I need a story, a “myth,” a narrative to explain what Derridean deconstruction is about! And I’ve just been writing one, just today, in fact. (Now I have three posts in the works! This is just great — at least it is great for me! Thanks to everyone!)
    However, Rick, your suggestion is still somewhat ironic! That’s because you say “this dense theory” won’t ever cut it, for explaining Derrida. So try a story… Now coming from a scientist, that is pretty wonderfully funny! Isn’t it? Even though it is apt.
    But what about your own “dense theory”? Quantum mechanics. I think QM is a good analogy (up to a point) to OUR dense theory, and the range of interpretations that are involved in it, after the “turn” from structuralism to post-structuralism. That formal turn (1960s in France) should be compared to the formal shift from Newtonian to Einsteinian worldviews in physics. The one prepared for the other.
    Quantum mechanics raises a whole nest of problems that revolve around what we mean by observation and reality and knowing. But it does so in highly precise ways! Ways that describe the situation accurately when applied. Still, we don’t know what it means yet. (I could quote physicists from here to Tuesday on that, no matter what many science bloggers seem to think….) We don’t know how much the future will show us. But QM certainly, at the least, imposes limits of very specific exquisitely precise kinds on what a scientist can know about a given situation even while it carries us deeper into that situation.
    But scientists would be quite exercised and indignant, wouldn’t they, if mere innumerate humanists went around saying that “QM shows reality may not exist or that we may not be able to know if it exists.” This would be wrong, wrong, wrong. The QM boat is in motion and it is taking us somewhere. Scientists are on board it because of this and as long as it carries them deeper (in comprehensiveness and universality as Rick defines these) they aren’t jumping off the boat just because no one is sure what to make of some of its implications.
    In the same way, the notion that poststructuralists would try to say that there is no planet orbiting the star ND 209458 or that the planet isn’t there until we discover it is wrong, wrong, wrong. (Although the proposition that perhaps we can’t KNOW that it was there before or until we discovered it — this would turn out to be a very fertile thought experiment, one which semiotic theory could handle very rigorously.)
    I personally am not aware of a single significant poststructuralist who denies “physical reality,” meaning physical reality in the same general sense that scientists accept a physical reality, yet you scientists still have a great physicist like Stephen Hawking saying “I don’t care about reality because I don’t know what it is.” This is while he mathematicizes brilliantly about dark holes and the nature of the singularity and whether the universe will or won’t go crunch. Stop and think for awhile about what’s going on here! Isn’t this rather strange? Yet scientists know exactly what Hawking means when he says “I don’t know what reality is.” “Oh, he’s a positivist, they say.” Big deal. They shrug.
    In the same way poststructuralists use the gaps and enigmas that have been precisely located between our observations or constructions of reality and reality — not by QM this time but by our own rigorous thought about semiotic systems in relation to the human knower — to go right on probing deeper into the nature of the reality that these problems have put into a certain magnificent focus.
    This is no game and no cheap trick — and PoMos with shallow understandings who are on some trendy bandwagon are just as phoney as are certain vapid speakers about quantum entanglement as they moot the terms and concepts about. (In both cases, they may be trying hard to understand and do something with it, but without a lot of physics or structuralism in one’s bones it’s hard to grasp the precise nature of the world opened up in QM or poststructuralism.)
    Now I can offer the general characterization of deconstruction that I’ve just given, without actually “explaining what it is,” because I think I may have figured out exactly how to put what it is!! And I may have just finished writing an explanation of what it is, in those terms. Eureka, I have found it!
    I had been reading and reading about the two-slit experiments (EPR) in Penrose, Barrow, and others hoping to find a way to use that, but it is not a precisely exact comparison (QM and deconstruction) and it is so very very dense that the more you get into it the more you have to know. (Just like poststructuralism, btw.)
    I have needed something that is more condensed and reducible and graspable, and I think I’ve found it in Kurt Godel’s incompleteness theorums. These I can understand, in part because I understand philosophically what Bertrand Russell was trying to do with his great Principia Mathematica, his system of logic that was supposed to found mathematics by grounding it in logic, and thus found science philosophically, by grounding it in a mathematics that was grounded in logic. This is, by the way, the perfect exemplary paradigm of what is meant by “foundationalism.” (And it’s a very late 19th-century sort of thing.)
    And Kurt Godel literally exploded it. (He blasted foundationalism.) Yet, let us quickly note with relief, science and mathematics went right on as before. Still, foundationalism as a program has basically been dropped, even by Russellian-type logicians, and we are still working out what all of this actually MEANS. But rather than concluding that we can’t construct coherent and powerful systems that enclose reality perfectly, and so what a miserable state we are all in, and let’s give up on thinking and knowing — No, Roger Penrose and Randy Rucker (and according to them, Kurt Godel) felt that this showed something utterly profound and even rather transcendent about humans as knowers — that they can avoid getting caught in their own systems and limited by them the way computers (so far) do.
    So, paradoxical as this may sound, humans by being able to press a way of knowing so far as to find certain very precise limits involved in it, actually thereby transcend those knowing systems. On the other hand, escaping the limits of a way of knowing also reminds us that all of our ways of knowing are indeed limited and this places us back into a limited situation (but an even more interesting one than before).
    Derrida traces this very line that we all walk as knowers, by reading magnificently coherent texts that signal their own incoherence — not simply to explode them and show they are “false” or “untrue”! Godel was a great mathematician, not a destroyer! No, Derrida is repeatedly negotiating that territory that is our knowing, so as to explore it even more precisely and work out what it means, that territory in which the knower is enabled and limited simultaneously by the instruments for knowing that make the knower a knower in the first place.
    Derrida is the Kurt Godel of semiotics and cultural studies.
    Now all I need are readers who understand Godel!
    Hmmm. But that’s much likelier among scientists than readers who understand poststructuralism! Right?
    By the way, I might mention that Derrida does manage to carry our insight in certain ways further than where I believe Godel left it, partly because he is dealing with the more comprehensive and generalized order of semiotic systems, of which a mathematical logic is only one case, although at the same time it is also more than (other than simply) a semiotic system. But semioticians can look at it in its aspect of being a semiotic system. (I think maybe I’ve managed to explain that additional step Derrida is able to make, too.)
    All I really want for the great generation of poststructuralists that is now passing off the scene is respect. I think respect comes with understanding, but it is too much to ask that scientists become semioticians and lit-theorists. They would need a whole other lifetime. As Feynman says, very few persons ever become truly proficient in even two different fields, let alone more than that.
    The reason I’m so exercised about these thinkers getting respect is not just for their sake or just for the sake of thought itself.
    No, it’s the whole notion of the liberal arts, so fundamental to a democratic citizenry. We can’t let ourselves be reduced to thinking that only people “on our side” can think well or have truth. Education has to make us liberally educated! But that means many valid disciplines.
    There are narrow close-minded fundamentalists to be found on every side — extremism is a fact of life in the contemporary world. But monolithic thinking will destroy democracy, and what goes first is the university scene, when a truly vigorous set of arts and sciences ceases thriving and jostling against one another, not letting each other get by without critique and outside perspectives, even while they are supporting each other as parts of the educative process that cultivates the kind of young people who can respect many perspectives and always stay open to new understandings.
    I’ve let myself go on and on, because it’s helping me to formulate my thinking. (Thanks for bearing with me!) Is a “story” or “myth” about Kurt Godel likely to resonate with physicists? I think it must, because you are all such highly developed mathematicians….

  13. Rick


    You said: “However, Rick, your suggestion is still somewhat ironic! That’s because you say “this dense theory” won’t ever cut it, for explaining Derrida. So try a story… Now coming from a scientist, that is pretty wonderfully funny! Isn’t it? Even though it is apt”

    We, I agree that it may be ironic. However, not so much as one might think. Take, for example, the sleeping puppy post that you have referred to elsewhere. This is not quantum mechanics in the “dense theory” sense. There is not (nor I would think could there be) a “salad-steak” wave-function that can be collapsed in to either salad or steak with varying probabilities by the presence of a sleeping puppy. The proper response to this post is not, however, to criticize it for hypothesizing an impossible wave-function. Rather, it is to recognize that it is a story which attempts to metaphorically cast a complex, dense, theoretical possibility, very difficult at this point to test, into a form and a language more accessible than the behavior of the world at the level for which a dense quantum mechanical theory is needed to treat. This story helps us understand this quantum mechanical effect, although it is not theoretical quantum mechanics in itself. I certainly do not claim that such stories (“myths”) can replace the theory, but that they are needed to communicate to those not already fluent in the language of the theory. And to, we might hope, inspire others to learn our theories and become fluent, or at least somewhat conversant, in the theoretical language.

    We used to joke in college that by the time a mathematician proved that a solution existed, a physicist would have found the solution and moved on. This holds some truth because physicists normally work in a realm in which a solution can reasonable be assumed to exist, while mathematician do not. Similarly the large majority of working physicists and chemists do not concern themselves, at least as working scientists, with the questions raised by quantum mechanics, more working mathematicians with the questions raised by Gödels theorem. They, like the physicists, work in a realm not directly affected by the questions. Quantum mechanical weirdness does not arise in a most of physics, and most mathematicians do not work at the edges of mathematics where Gödels results affects them.

    I would think that all theory is based upon deciding what is important to the purpose at hand, and abstracting away that which is not. When a young child says “Look at the puppy” and her mother says “That’s not a puppy, dear, that’s a kitty”, the child adjusts her theory concerning the difference between puppies and kitties (the last puppy I saw was black, this four-legged furry small animal is black, and not a puppy, “black” is not a useful defining characteristic of “puppy”).

    In elementary physics textbooks you will often find problems that begin with something like “Assume a dimensionless object of mass m, on an infinite frictionless plane…” (Physicists are well known for this, as with the joke about the physicist who wrote a paper on racetrack handicapping, which began “Assume a spherical horse in a vacuum…”). I would think this performs at least three functions. Firstly, and most obviously, it simplified the problem making it easier to solve. Thirdly (I know I skipped “secondly”, I’ll get back to it), it serves to teach the theoretical (meta-theoretical?) principle that a good theory that gives approximate results is better than a bad theory that gives exact results. The “real world” is a little short of dimensionless objects with mass and infinite frictionless planes, and thus any results will pretty much necessarily be approximate; but a good theory can be extended to give better results (learn how next semester), and also illuminates the problem and aids in understanding, neither of which a bad theory can do.

    Secondly (and what’s important to my point here), this helps teach what kinds of “things” are important to solving physics problems, and what kind of “things” are not. Mass is important (it’s given and used in the solutions), color is not. For the immediate problem at hand, the shape is not important, although its ability to move freely is. Thus such problems teach how to abstract in a “physics” sort of way.

    It is important to note that the problems do not claim that the abstracted away “things” are not “real”, just “unimportant for the problem at hand treated as a physics problem.” Calculating the energy released in a car crash, the accelerations of objects in the car, etc. can be treated by physics; the color of the car, however, in not important to the problem at hand and are abstracted away. But the color of the car reamins as real as the mass and velocity.

    Raising this up several levels, science deals with problems that are abstractable to the type of universality science deals with; i.e., those that can be taken to be observable to anyone, regardless of “the vagaries of language, culture, personal history, personality, and so forth”. Anyone can see the phases of Venus (if they have access to a decent telescope, a clear night sky, and the interest to look), anyone can observe the reduction in the light of HD 209458 due to the passage of the planet in front of it (if they have the right equipment) as is the Doppler shift in the light from the star (if they have the right equipment). Anyone can observe the change in the patterns of light due to covering and uncovering one of the slits in a two-slit experiment. Anyone can generate an electric current by moving a wire though a magnetic field. And so on.

    Yes, there are those who claim that what science does not treat does not exist. Claiming that color “does not exist” because it can be abstracted away in certain physics problems would be a philosophical error. I would argue that it the same philosophical error to argue that the “things” abstracted away by the broader “science” paradigm, simply because they are abstracted away in this theoretical context, do not exist. Science is limited to those “things” that science limits itself to, those things abstractable to universality of observation, and to theories about those things which are, at least ideally, comprehensive.

    It also seems to me that criticizing science because it limits itself to this sort of universal material makes the same philosophical error, although from the other side. Science does not describe all of reality in its entirety. Science abstracts away that which is not universalizable in its own peculiar sense. There are things, I would say important things, that are not, and cannot be, so abstracted away in our lives as we live them.

    As Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.” Science has its limits, there is that about which it must remain silent. The fact that there are those who do not remain silent does not mean the lack of silence is justified.

    This is where I am generally coming from philosophically (at least today, subject to change without notice).

  14. Janet

    Yes, yes, yes. I couldn’t agree more. This is such helpful stuff. Thanks for taking the time to express it for all of us. (Do you mean “breaking the silence” instead of lack of silence in that sentence, 3 lines above?)

    You say: “It also seems to me that criticizing science because it limits itself to this sort of universal material makes the same philosophical error, although from the other side. Science does not describe all of reality in its entirety.”

    I hope you don’t think I would ever make this “criticism”! What I criticize is the opposite. That some science bloggers proclaim that science studies all of reality and has no self-imposed limitations as to either it’s subject matter or its methods.
    But I keep being reminded by scientists that as soon as they mention “fact” in a scientific sense, humanists start trying to prove to them that “fact” is a constructed result of a method, and the scientists take that as implying that it is a mere figment of the subjective imagination in an inherently biased approach. Rop Knop has a post that discusses his own experience of this as a scientist talking to humanists, and he is wise enough to say that the humanist who argued with his example of a fact seemed to him to be trying to say something more important and more sophisticated that merely debunking “facts,” but he couldn’t grasp what it was.

    We need a better, sharper language for according scientific facts their inherent comprehensiveness and universality in the scientific sense while still recognizing the marvelous progress we have made in semiotic studies about probing that enigmatic boundary between our own attempts to observe and the reality that is being observed. The all-important role of the method we use in the results we get.

    Max Born used to say, I read recently, that a good analogy for the situation in quantum mechanics is a person in a pitch-black room who finds a walking stick. At first the walking stick appears to be part of the room, completely separate from the person. But then the person begins to use it to poke at things that can’t be seen in the room and to push things around and then the stick comes to seem more like an extension of the person’s own arm. You forget the stick is involved at all, limiting your results (but also making them possible). Maybe here’s a little story here for us, perhaps.

    It seems to me that many scientists are not aware that they are always poking and pushing with sticks. Or that all of us always are, no matter what we are observing. There is always a mediator that is partly us and partly what’s out there… Vision, for instance. Humanists worry that scientists find it very easy to just take what they learn from all their sticks as being equivalent to the actual contents of the room. But actually, there are lots of thing there in the room that they cannot probe with sticks, and the sticks also disturb a lot of the stuff in the room. Humanists leap on the word “fact,” for example, because it fact can be a very naive word, if we don’t realize that all facts are inherently “theory-laden.” A fact to an 18th or 19th century mind cannot be what it is today to our minds, because we have learned some things about facts.

    But when humanists want to talk about what a “fact” is and “problematicize'” that (in some old lingo) it is not because (I hope to God) they are thinking that scientists don’t have valid results. Again, in talking we tend to flip-flop back and forth between an imagined “absolute fact” and an imagined “merely subjective construction” and that is not the situation out there at all. All manner of validly constructed facts are out ther, in every field. The pluralism of different disciplines using different sort of “sticks.”
    But I do see what he mean — how it could sound like I am trying to say science doesn’t acheive any universality and comprehensiveness if I question using loaded Newtonian language like “universal” or “objective.”
    I don’t want to attack science. Just make sure it is qualified a little bit, just as you qualify it above.

  15. Rick

    You’re right, “breaking the silence” is better.

    You said “Rop Knop has a post that discusses his own experience of this as a scientist talking to humanists, and he is wise enough to say that the humanist who argued with his example of a fact seemed to him to be trying to say something more important and more sophisticated that merely debunking “facts,” but he couldn’t grasp what it was.”

    I have had that experience, reading something written by a humanist, getting the feeling that they were saying something important, but not being able to figure out what it could be.

    A regard to the use of story, and to the use of story to illuminate the outlook of us science types, particularly in regard to what I am terming “universality” (if you have a better word …) there is what I think is an interesting example in the science fiction short story Omnilingual, by H. Beam Piper. THe story concerns an archeological expidition to Mars, to explore the ruins of a long-vanished martian civilization. They find a kind of “rosetta stone” for understanding the martian language in the form of a periodic table of the elements. Towards the end of the story, in a explanation of the meaning of the discovery, one of the characters says

    “That isn’t just the Martian table of elements; that’s the table of elements. It’s the only one there is.” Mort Tranter almost exploded. “Look, hydrogen has one proton and one electron. If it had more of either, it wouldn’t be hydrogen, it’d be something else. And the same with all the rest of the elements. And hydrogen on Mars is the same as hydrogen on Terra, or on Alpha Centauri, or in the next galaxy–”


    This story constitutes, if you will, a kind of “myth” that illuminates one aspect of the scientific enterprise, it universality (it will even work for martians) and the belief that we are finding out something real about the nature of things.

  16. Pseudonym

    And Kurt Godel literally exploded it.

    Oh, you whacky literary theorists, using “literally” to mean “figuratively”. :-)

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