Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Post-Modernism and Science

Tibor R. Machan

The main tenet of post-modernist philosophy is that reality is constructed, non-objective. (A good description of the movement is at [ ] and in Stephen Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism at In America the main representative is the philosopher Richard Rorty, also referred to as a radical pragmatist, who is very big on denying the very possibility, not to mention desirability, of objective truth. Which is to say, Rorty holds that human beings are unable to know the world as it really is, independently of various prejudices, preconceptions, influences from their particular communities and so forth.

Now I won’t revisit Hicks’ book here but it bears some reflection that the post-modernist outlook is simply at odds with the bulk of modern science. Some dispute this because of a few epistemological puzzles that surround contemporary subatomic physics but apart from that, the bulk of what scientists do flatly contradicts the notion that human beings cannot know the world other than as a construct of their own minds.

Take, for example, a recent story out of one of my favorites magazines, Science News. In the January 7, 2006, issues one can read the page 3 story, “Stone Age Footwork,” which opens with the following unabashedly objective claim: “Researchers working near the shore of a dried-up lake basin in southwestern Australia have taken a giant leap backward in time. They’ve uncovered the largest known collection of Stone Age human footprints.”

The particulars of this report may only interest anthropologist and archaeologists—it is detailed in a paper in the January 2006 issue of the Journal of Human Evolution—but anyone will appreciate just how unapologetically, even unselfconsciously objectivist the story is reported. Of course, no one doubts that what the researchers have found is a matter of the facts of the world—albeit a world way back in time. The prints—which were discovered by an aboriginal woman back in 2000 who was helping with an archeological survey in the region—are evidently well confirmed in terms of the standards of the relevant science—“the team shone a laser light on sand grains from sediments just above and below the footprint-bearing soil layer.” The measurements were made from the emitted light based on “accumulated radioactivity, from which the group calculated the sediments’ ages.”

Of course, it is one thing to proceed in science without giving any credibility to or worrying about post-modernist ideas. There’d be little of modern medicine and technology if those practicing in these fields sat around trifling about whether the world really exists or whether their understanding of it is a matter of inescapable mental intervention rather than apprehension. Philosophers, on the other hand, are committed to check out such bizarre notions—they are in the business of taking nothing much for granted, including that our thinking gets us what we ordinarily believe it does, namely, understanding of what’s what.

This process has been going on for ages. No sooner do some philosophers come up with a good account of how competent the human mind can be that some colleagues will puncture the account full of holes and send everyone back to the drawing board.

Yet, in certain times along the way the skeptics—now called “post-modernists”—get too much of a foothold and spawn a host of really crazy views, which themselves take over various disciplines (especially in the humanities and social sciences). Notions like multiculturalism come to spread, as does cultural relativism, subjectivism, constructivism, and what have you, all calling into question that anyone has managed to come to know things better than anyone else, that there really is reliable knowledge we have accumulated about the world. Part of this skeptical movement then starts having a serious and even devastating influence in schools, from the elementary to the post-graduate levels, and unsuspecting folks do not just have the skeptical ideas taught as one of several ways people think but as the best way to think. Yes, yes, this is especially paradoxical for post-modernists to put out there but there you have it, they do.

Perhaps the most insidious result is that education itself begins to reflect what post-modernism contends, namely, that there is no hope of getting anything right at all and the whole process of learning is but that of trying to acquire power, to impose one of the many views on us all, never mind truth, objectivity, or reality.

One way this comes out in, say, colleges is that certain young, enthusiastic imaginative post-modernist professors abandon the traditional pedagogical approach of presenting different schools of thought from which students are expected to find the best. Instead these professors simply preach their own preferred position to their students, a captive audience in most cases, beating back any questions as reactionary and putting down all students who don’t yield to their message. Without the possibility of truth, of actual knowledge, you see, all’s that’s left is who can triumph over all the rest in being most intensely promoted!

In the quest for understanding, then, it is crucial not to give in to the post-modernist stance. It only makes the very idea of obtaining understanding impossible and substitutes the notion of different inventions battling it out on the basis of how many in some discipline buy into one of it.

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