How Science and Postmodernism Interrelate
If you are here, you feel the increased need for sensemaking. This need is intensified by the increasing online overlap of sensemaking experts from different domains.
This article was first published here.
This is part 1 of the series Sensemaking for the 21st Century. Part 2: From Postmodernism to Metamodernism. Part 3: Conspiracy Theories, Ideology, and Metaphysics in the Metamodern Era.
21st-century informational channels have broken the boundaries of past sensemaking paradigms. The paradigms the majority of us reached maturity with no longer work. We are ill-equipped to deal with our current information context as no paradigm has emerged for us to adequately coordinate.
Future generations will eventually create adequate sensemaking paradigms but those generations do not yet exist or have not had time to develop those paradigms. Additionally, many young people are still being trained with past paradigms, extending the confusion.
While future generations will be less confused, we may not have the luxury to wait as consequences of today’s confusion loom.
The current conversation about the boundary for postmodernism, philosophy, and science is a shit show. Historically the conversation between science and philosophy has not been friendly with both sides advocating that their method has direct access to the truth (one side expresses itself in a vaguely hostile but also hopeful book, The Third Culture). A huge part of the problem: Both sides do not understand the limitations of their expertise and/or each either treats their (or the opposing) field as somehow static. Their paradigms only work internally in their field. When stepping outside their domain of expertise, experts are often unable to assess their own inadequacies (perhaps because they are less concerned about what they are saying than about influencing public opinion). Some examples include:
- science trained individuals misunderstand what postmodernism is about (see James Lindsey).
- science trained individuals sometimes assess knowledge based on the mythology that science as the only access to the truth (for instance, outright rejecting religion).
- postmodern trained individuals lack the critical awareness of their own field of inquiry, sometimes resorting to sloppy declarations that are beyond culture, e.g., there is no objectivity.
- postmodern trained individuals sometimes treat science as a hermeneutically sealed as a cultural artifact (and declare that one should reject science as a whole) when in fact science is both a cultural practice subject to cultural critiques and a mode of discovery not subject to cultural critiques.
I’m not saying that one should not try to make sense of areas outside of one’s own expertise. The world is very rich and multifaceted, so there is definitely room for all of us to develop novel understandings of familiar topics. What is often forgotten is that philosophy and science have different areas of concern. Neither has an approach that can answer every concern anyone can have.
The thesis of this article is that postmodern philosophy and science can benefit from each other’s expertise but only if they understand the limitations of their own approaches. This article explores the boundaries of current Western tradition sensemaking paradigms by outlining how each developed with an emphasis on a different area of concern. After all, philosophy and science have the same roots. Additionally, as a sub-topic, is possible to see postmodernism as a natural consequence of 1) technological innovations furthered by science and 2) capitalism’s profit motive. I will not expand on capitalism's profit motive much, because we are familiar with how capitalism can spark ingenuity.
As a note, I will use postmodern philosophy and post-structuralist philosophy synonymously since that is how most people understand that subject area, although, strictly speaking, the two are different.
In the first section, we will explore the shared history of the concerns of philosophy and science. In the second section, we will examine where postmodernism comes from (see the previous paragraph: it’s not philosophy). In the last two sections, we will speculate on how science and postmodernism interrelate and how their projects overlap, and what that means for humans moving forward.
1 A Brief History of Science and Philosophy
Both science and philosophy have the same origins because they have the same “mission”.
Around 600 BCE, Thales of Miletus (circa 600 BCE) made a radical break for establishing the western tradition for both philosophy and science. Contrary to his contemporaries, he suggested that the universe wasn’t run by morality: The universe ran on some other mechanism.
The subject of what that mechanism was, became the subject of philosophy, and by extension, science.
By the 5th century CE, in the medieval ages about 1000 years after Thales, the Christian Church had taken up the mantle of understanding what truth is. The basis for knowledge at this time related to God. The understanding was that God created all phenomena in a universal hierarchy called the Great Chain of Being. Thus, everything in existence had a unique essence such that existence and essence were synonymous.
In the 11th century, ancient Greek philosophy had been lost in the Dark Ages. This body of knowledge was reintroduced in the Crusades through contact with the Middle East. These works overlapped with areas of church dogma causing controversy when monks began to take up Greek philosophy. Around the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas argued for the preservation of this knowledge, through a synthesis between Greek philosophy and Christian thought.
The preservation of this knowledge allowed philosophical topics to continue unabated, stimulating first the Italian Renaissance and then later, the Northern Renaissance.
By the 16th century in the Northern Renaissance, a class of elites arose who would dabble in intellectual curiosities regarding the mechanism of material phenomena. These elites were generally independently wealthy. They are called natural philosophers. (Issac Newton was one such individual). The most influential natural philosopher was Rene Descartes who, besides furthering the study of optics (through his work on the human eye), is also considered the father of Modern Philosophy and Modern Mathematics.
After traveling as a well-to-do youth in foreign lands, Descartes began his quest to find universal truth. He observed that different groups of people had different understandings of what was true. Descartes’s proposed solution for research was dualistic: to separate the mind and the body as two separate domains of inquiry. His material research scheme is laid out in his book Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences. His mental research scheme is laid out in his book Meditations on First Philosophy where he elaborates with an a priori dictum “I think therefore I am”. Descartes’ use of analytic geometry, in combination with algebra, led to modern mathematics, as algebraic propositions are mapped into spatial geometry. Descartes used this mathematical structure to explore the trajectory of cannon fire with the parabola.
Despite these achievements, Descartes is not the father of modern science. Modern science emerged when natural philosophers explored their subject areas quantitatively rather than qualitatively. Two examples include
- Antoine Lavoisier who examined ratios of natural chemicals without the use of cultural metaphors.
- Joseph Fourier used calculus (and trigonometry) to describe the spread of heat in different materials.
Both of these men, among others, pioneered explorations of material matter without involving the culturally understood “essences” of that matter.
The switch from a qualitative basis to a quantitative basis is one key distinction of modern science from earlier natural philosophers. Qualitative approaches to knowledge generally dealt with qualities, like cultural knowledge (some examples include spirits, God, animus/anima, Greek Gods, tarot cards, astrology), or some kind of principle (such as libido, élan vital, aether), but more mundanely it could include color, taste, and other sensory impressions.
To compare the ideas of natural philosophy with science, let’s consider Issac Newton.
Despite contemporary physicists’ claims that Newton was the exemplar of science, and despite the fact that Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica is also largely quantitative, Newton did attempt, at least in private, to justify his work through alchemic ideas (see Margaret Wertheim’s Pythagoras’ Trousers). Newton’s alchemical exploration of astronomy means that Newton did not have the same paradigm as modern scientists.
Additionally, Newton also did not do experiments. In the essay Newton’s Effects on Scientific Standards (see Philosophical Papers, Volume 1: The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes), philosopher of science, Imre Lakatos writes about a correspondence between Newton and John Flamsteed, the first Royal Astronomer
Newton constantly criticized and corrected Flamsteed’s observational, touchstone theories. Newton taught Flamsteed for instance a better theory of the refractive power of the atmosphere which Flamsteed accepted and which corrected his original ‘data’. One can understand the constant humiliation and slowly increasing fury of this great observer, having his data criticized and improved by a man, who, on his own confession made no observations himself.
Newton is a transitional figure who has both qualities of natural philosophy and modern scientists. Despite his work on prisms and light, in which Newton does experiments, he is closer in method to a Rationalist.
Contemporary opposition to Newtonians was mainly from Cartesianism, the people continuing the research method of Descartes. The debate between Newtonians and Cartesianists lasted well into the 19th century. Cartesianism is also natural philosophy. While both approaches eschewed arguing for causes like alchemy, they still used qualitative understandings, believing that pure thought (Rationalism, like that proposed by Descartes) was sufficient to explain natural phenomena.
Modern science took a long time to develop as philosophers like John Stuart Mill (see A System Of Logic, Ratiocinative, and Inductive), David Hume (see An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding), and Karl Popper (see The Logic of Scientific Discovery), among many others, argued about the manner with which ideas and findings should be discovered, explored, verified, and justified. Fully modern science would not arise until closer to the 20th century when experimentation took to the foreground of scientific activity.
All in all, the division between science and philosophy as we understand it today is largely a retroactive view.
We will now leave off talking about science since science didn’t have a recognizably contemporary procedure until close to the 20th century. Only after a kind of method is agreed upon does it become clear what is science and science mythology. We will pick up with science mythology in the last section. Now we turn our attention to catching up to the modern era, as the aesthetics of philosophy also changed radically.
1.1 Modernist Philosophy
In some sense, while science was developing, modern philosophy continued, stemming mainly from the work of Immanuel Kant. Kant approached questions of Being and essence more directly through conceptually rational means, much like that of Descartes.
While Kant also talked about empirical sciences, his method required exploring the mental domain. He also further split philosophy from theology, classifying certain forms of knowing as ontotheological (as in dealing with revelation) from empirically-based transcendental ontologies. Kant also reduced references to God (although he still did include God, but only as a suprasensible transcendent capstone, and as a means to explain a priori principles).
By the 20th century, Europe had seen roughly 250 years of considering existential phenomena in quantitative terms, through the physical sciences. This development involved major leaps in technology, radically altering the world. Clearly, the material world can be manipulated in ways so that new forms are brought into existence. As the lifeworld changed with new technologies, so people found the presumed “natural order” shifting radically. In some instances, as with Marx’s concept of alienation, the modern industrial world only had displacement, where individuals lost the sense of being part of something transcendental or cosmological.
The connection between essence and existence was questioned during the Industrial Age in a way that could not be questioned in the 16th century.
This disconnection is first deeply explored by Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard struggled to find meaning in a protestant Christian framework where one had no natural mediation to God. This struggle to find one’s place led to the formation of existentialism.
In the 20th century, Jean-Paul Sartre’s explicit formation of “existence precedes essence” best describes the split of essence from existence. Sartre ground the idea that people had a personal choice (see Being and Nothingness). From this angle, Sartre’s work illustrates the disconnect between philosophy and science, as a science deals successfully with what exists — in a way that philosophy cannot.
Interestingly, Ludwig Wittgenstein, a paragon for analytic philosophy, and Edmund Husserl, a philosopher who tried to extend Kantian phenomenology, both wrote books that had very similar explorations in language. The two books respectively are Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Logical Investigations. This similiarity demonstrates parallelism between analyatical scienctific and traditional philosophy’s attitudes towards language and meaning.
With Sartre, the space for philosophy was fully post-existence, the subject of which is meaning and Being.
Sartre’s work is significant because it is perhaps the last major philosophical work framed by dualistic concerns. While Descartes’ dualism laid the boundaries of different domains of study, it was Kant who explored philosophy completely within the domain of the mind. Philosophers following Kant, like Sartre, Husserl, and Heidegger inherited Descartes’ approach, with the assumption that the essence of human beings could be discovered innately within the domain of the mind. Existentialism sealed this choice completely so that one’s “essence” could now be a matter of personal choice, depending on how one made up their mind.
Sartre’s slightly earlier contemporary Fredrick Nietzsche also made the claim that God is dead. So with the 20th century, not only did God no longer create with a pre-determined essence but now, existence stood on its own, separate from even the essence of God.
Although Sartre’s work relegated the traditional question of human essence to personal choice, this did not end philosophy. The next generation of thinkers, following the work of anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, continued the conversation by flipping the question of human essence inside-out with structuralism.
Interesting, Levi-Strauss is a scientist whose work extended into the domain of philosophy through his empirical study of culture. Science has directly contributed to postmodernism in ways that both scientists and postmodern practitioners often ignore.
1.2 Structuralism and Post-Structuralism
Structuralism approaches the question of human essence by examining human culture, instead of looking solely within the mental realm. Instead of looking inward for answers to subjectivity, structuralism looks outward at culture and cultural mythologies.
Structuralism considers many different cultures’ mythologies and stories to discover the essence of human nature. Structuralists tend to use a framework like psychoanalysis (Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung) or linguistics (like Ferdinand de Saussure or Mikhail Bakhtin) to have a general basis for analysis. Some structuralists include Roland Barthes, Joseph Campbell, and Jacques Lacan. As mentioned earlier, a contemporary day thinker in the structuralist mode would be Jordan B. Peterson (see Maps of Meaning).
Structuralism works by synthesizing from the concrete details of many cultures/mythologies a theoretical abstraction. With structuralism, human subjectivity is seen as a function of society. An abstracted theory, deemed as the universal process, describes how human subjectivity is molded. Structuralism lasted about one generation before giving way to post-structuralism.
Like how structuralism flipped inquiry into subjectivity inside out, the post-structuralist turn flips the structuralist approach of theorizing the abstract from the concrete to theorizing the concrete from the abstract. This break is traceable to Jacques Derrida’s essay Structure, Sign, and Play given in a structuralist conference in 1967.
Structuralism studied what was universal about mythology and culture to try to find what was universal. Post-structuralism looks at what is unique about individual mythologies and cultures despite the claims of universality. Where structuralism claims that humans can be understood by one centralized model (such as the Oedipus Complex), post-structuralism addresses the gap between models and individuals. The centrality of concepts in structuralism (and modernism) is highly dependant on the perceived nature of the phenomena it seeks to capture.
By examining in-depth structuralism’s claims, post-structuralism recognizes the nature of the gap between a given abstraction and the concrete, practical reality as it is (historically or currently).
Despite this difference, post-structuralism is like structuralism in that post-structuralism also examines language and culture’s influence on subjectivity and meaning-making. With post-structuralism, however, the emphasis is on individual contexts, rather than finding a universal construction.
Taken as a whole, post-structuralist approaches suggest that this type of gap appears as a feature of knowledge, where a given abstraction cannot completely account for all possible experiences, or forms of knowledge.
This broad view of post-structuralism is sufficient. We will not go into detail about post-structuralism, as that is beyond the scope of this article. It is, however, significant to note that post-structuralism is ill-defined as a whole. Most thinkers labeled as post-structuralist have rejected the label (for instance, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, mentioned earlier). Additionally, it’s easy to see that some works by the same thinkers can be considered structuralist, while later works may be considered post-structuralist.
At this point, we will now connect post-structuralism with postmodernism. Contemporaneously, postmodernism coincides with post-structuralism. The roots of postmodernism are independent of post-structuralist writings, although it is arguable that the roots of postmodernism also inform post-structuralism.
2 The Rise of Postmodernism
After World War II, the United States was the only intact developed nation. Fear of another Great Depression led the United States to push for an increase in GDP. To achieve this, the US Government pushed for the suburbanization of its population and the destruction of family farms. The reasons are twofold:
- As the Great Depression was precipitated by natural disasters on farms, if people didn’t live on farms, another natural disaster might not cause another Great Depression.
- Farmers do not participate much with the GDP as a family farm can be self-sufficient. People living in suburbs do participate in GDP, as they buy all their food and all their products.
Additionally, the 1950s saw claims for science and technology promising to transform modern living into a utopic vision of consumer freedom.
The heavy industry developed for World War II (called by President Eisenhower “the military-industrial complex”) was re-tooled to churn out consumer products, drastically raising the standard of living to new heights.
The rise of modern media also presented previously isolated communities of minorities and undeveloped (exploited) countries with visions of a consumer utopia (in part, spawning the Indonesian War for Independence). Former colonies, inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights now wanted to get in on the consumer action.
In the United States, modern media presented minorities and women a new image of how good life could be. The desire to raise their standard of living led, in part, to the Civil Rights movement.
As the profit motive in capitalism required increasing both the size of the workforce and the consumer base, Civil Rights provided a means to do both. With Civil Rights, the disenfranchised could get better jobs and then, in turn, use that money to buy consumer goods.
The first half of the 20th century, which is labeled as modernism, already had mass consumerism (starting in the 1920s). At that time, consumer product variety was constrained by the technical limits of the production industry. This limitation provided criteria that formed the modernist design aesthetic pioneered by Bauhaus, which blended form with function. This aesthetic was essential for the efficient production of mass goods so that material was not wasted, and what was produced worked.
By the 1960s, a plateau in consumer saturation was reached, as white households that could afford goods had a TV, car, and refrigerator. To keep the economy running, corporations turned towards advocating individual taste and consumer choice — advertising lifestyle to drive product design, with an emphasis on the new and the high-tech. People were encouraged to express themselves through their purchases. The radical style of the 1960s was, in part, the fragmentation of the modernist design aesthetic towards individualized fashion and lifestyle. With this fragmentation came a playfulness, as the limitations of modern design were gradually overcome. Designers, architects, artists, and writers more freely explored the limitations of their craft in pursuit of personal expression.
The effects of mass consumerism with advertisement further eroded the already “alienated” modern man. Rather than relying on an “essence” as given by God, how people lived became dictated by the capitalist profit motives or by lifestyle.
Playboy magazine is an example of this further push for consumerism. In recognition of maximizing consumerism, there was a need to sell more consumer goods to men (as most consumer purchases were done by women). The “playboy lifestyle” provided such a venue with the promise of sex. Not only was it okay for men and woman to have a bit of adult fun (and not marry, as the woman was portrayed as an also independent working woman who didn’t necessarily need marriage), but men also had to prove their worthiness to women by buying good shampoo and having a good haircut, buying kitchen products to cook a good steak, buying a hi-fi stereo system or a flashy car. The articles in Playboy colonized men with the consumerist need for high-end products (see Elizabeth Fraterrigo’s Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America).
By the 1970s, capitalism had reached the far corners of the world. The Vietnam War then provided a catalyst that would lead to the postmodernism we recognize today, by increasing diversity even further. There were two main effects of the Vietnam War.
The first effect has to do with the war itself. The Vietnam War provided the foundations for neoliberalism as it established logistical lines for global trade. Since the United States decided not to treat the Vietnam War as a proxy war, the United States had to ship supplies for US soldiers halfway across the world. The cost of this shipping was incredibly expensive. Since cargo ships came back to the United States empty, they could stop by Japan and pick up cheaper goods manufactured in Asia. This established the profitability of global shipping lines, laying the groundwork for neoliberalism and the unification of the global economy (see Robert B. Reich’s Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life).
The second effect has to do with the protests against the war at home. As protests raged throughout universities, activists sought to critique entrenched racial and social interests. Alarmed by these changes, Havard University generated the Report on the Core Curriculum. This report argued for a curriculum change towards certain forms of thought, justified by fostering American culture and interests. This move resembled one made in the previous century that the British had done during the Victorian Era. The work of Matthew Arnold, among others, argued for British culture as the best means to access universal truth and rationality. While I do not think that Havard was seeking to be racist, that report was promoting an ethnocentric agenda, one that would eliminate more liberal courses in universities that arose in the 1960s and 1970s. The more radical elements won out. Liberals pushed for a more diverse curriculum, one which included newly minted departments like African American studies and Women’s studies. (see William Spanos’s End Of Education: Toward Posthumanism).
The creation of these new forms of literary study needed some kind of philosophical justification. Post-structuralism, which was contemporary to all this, provided such justification.
As mentioned previously, post-structuralism developed recognizing the limits of fitting all groups into a single framework. More traditional approaches, being more ethnocentric, would argue for more European values, the very aspects of culture these new curricula sought to avoid.
The influence of consumerism, lifestyle choice, and multiculturalism is the root of both postmodernism and post-structuralism. Jean-Francis Lyotard writes The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge as an observation and exploration of how people no longer agree on having a meta-narrative. One could argue that he wouldn’t have made this speculation without the fragmentation afforded by capitalism and the further mixing of global culture. Such increased consumer activity could only be possible with advances in science, manufacturing, shipping, and energy use.
As science brought enabled the consumer lifestyle so science also enabled people to adopt contrary views about our lifeworld via the analogy of lifestyle which led to the rise of postmodernism and post-structuralism.
Ironically then, critiques of postmodernism, through rejecting post-structuralism, get things backward. Post-structuralism doesn’t justify postmodernism as post-structuralism was largely informed by the very deep and non-philosophical conditions that also enabled the rise of postmodernism.
The use of post-structuralist thought as applied to culture and institutions led to the rise of cultural criticism. Cultural criticism has mainly worked to both dismantle the justificatory basis for conservative and ethnocentric approaches while providing new ground to justify new forms of expression through the context of their origins.
Retroactively we can look at these changes collectively as the postmodern era.
All in all, the rise of postmodernism would not have been possible without the technology created by science furthering the capitalist impulse to innovate and create profit.
In a larger sense, the era of postmodernity was inevitable as new markets (new countries) would eventually be opened to sell products to and provide cheaper labor. Despite the ideals of universal liberalism, the study of other groups within academia is the product of giving those groups their light in the sun, as equal consumers and workers in the neoliberal global marketplace.
Likewise, the loss of ethnocentric forms of thinking and meaning-making are also byproducts of needing to work with people outside one’s culture. Neoliberalism has resulted in a major split internal to developed countries as international cities like Tokyo, London, Mumbai, Los Angeles, and Singapore all have cultures that more closely resemble each other than the culture of their regional counterparts. (see Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire)
These new cultural changes fostered by the acceleration in culture through media, advertisement, and civil rights eroded the social order even further, giving rise to a backlash against postmodernism, even though postmodernism is just a surface description for how our world has changed.
3 Postmodernism, Science, and Truth
Before we get to the last section, we need to finish talking about the aesthetics of science. To do this let’s walk quickly through the mythology developed alongside scientific history.
3.1 The Mythos of Science
Science is extremely proficient at discovering the physical causes of phenomena. Through the use of statistics and A/B and A/A testing, science is also good at finding out how to effect changes, but only when populations can be isolated to make those tests. Science has a much more difficult time when it comes to accounting for causes which may be mental in nature, or when subjectivity plays a role. Science has difficulty relating to subjectivity/mental phenomenon because the scientific method relies heavily on consensus within the scientific community in order to verify findings. Subjectivity cannot be included within the verification process because subjectivity is meant to be eliminated through this verification process. For this reason, science has difficulty with arguing for meaning because meaning is not a physical phenomenon. If someone is claiming an argument for meaning with science, then we should look more closely to see where an assumption is inserted.
In general, the mythology of science is an extension of Descartes’ dualism. As stated before, Descartes’ positing mind and body as mutually exclusive led eventually to two forms of study: the mental/rational and the physical/empirical. Science developed in pursuit of studying the empirical. In order to do so, science had to establish guidelines. Those guidelines eventually became the mythology some scientists still advocate today.
- Science had to reject cultural knowledge. We see with contemporary science that there is a bias against anything originating from cultural knowledge. An example of cultural knowledge is alchemy and astrology, as both rely on the cultural mythos and was thus too open to subjective interpretation.
- Science had to reject armchair approaches like Cartesianism and the analysis-synthesis method since Rationalism could not consider details it did not already have at hand. Without experimentation, there could be no discovery as to what really causes phenomena.
One additional major step it needed to take in the quantitative approach was to embrace statistics, which was first posited by Karl Popper. Incidentially, science practitioners have also largely ignored Popper’s ideas on falsifiability as most scientists seem to assume their findings are, in some sense, universal (given particular criteria).
Essentially, the two approaches above helped establish science’s mythology. This mythology by its nature is irrational although the attitudes were, in some sense, necessary for the development of science.
This mythology may lead people (not just scientists) to automatically dismiss cultural knowledge and any consideration of phenomena in the mental realm as being false. Since philosophy has taken up the mantle of the mental realm, many scientists without understanding philosophy or the mythology of science dismiss philosophy as being false, or useless.
Interestingly, such scientists, like Stephen Hawking (see A Brief History of Time) and Steven Weinberg (see To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science), among others, will often proceed by doing bad philosophy or, like David Bohm (see Wholeness and Implicate Order), come up with conclusions philosophers have already made.
The mythology of science was historically necessary but applied today is misleading. Cultural knowledge may not be scientific but the veracity of that knowledge is independent of scientific validation. Scientific validation is always separate from the truth as validation is the mechanism to find the truth, not to choose what to consider to be true.
Descartes's dualism has historically, presented two conceptual problems. The first is that with it, everyone who adopts it (philosophers and scientists, for example) cannot find a way to conclusively map the mental and physical together. The second problem is that each person’s mental domain cannot find a connection to any other.
This second problem is actually, to a large degree, the domain explored by structuralism and post-structuralism. Recall how structuralism looked at how language/culture provided the grounds for molding subjectivity? The connection of minds is through the domain of language and culture.
So how do science treat language and the mental domain? Science mythology has a double standard for language and subjectivity. Either science mythology treats language and subjectivity as
- being transparent, a window to the physical (a move attempted by logical positivists, analytic philosophers, and theoretical physicists who believe in the absolute truth of mathematics, like Roger Penrose (see The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe))
- science mythology will dismiss language and subjectivity as noise, as automatically illegitimate.
What is interesting about this double standard is that science cannot even explain this double standard. When provoked, people (not just scientists) will often double down on science mythology through appeals to science qua truth or the scientific method qua truth without providing any meaningful explanation for how language could be both noise and transparent.
The most common argument in favor of this double standard will claim that transparency/noise is a function of individuals, that some people are just dumb, which avoids the addressing the concern about double standards. Dumb people are “go to” argument for whatever is wrong with anything.
All in all, most people (not just scientists) are not well trained in philosophy, nor are they familiar with how to critically consider how they apply the formulation of their theories in ways beyond scientific testing and experimentation. For this reason, most people (not just scientists) tend to be “naive metaphysicians” — that is — they assume direct access to the truth without acknowledging how cultural assumptions could play a part in expressing what constitutes understanding.
This science mythology extends far from science into common culture (and media), where people (not just scientists) mistake factual findings for what to think about them. While this topic deserves its own article, the separation between meaning and fact has to do with understanding that cultural considerations can frame scientific findings. When we do not consider the cultural framing, scientific findings can appear to directly implicate cultural opinions.
Additionally, the mythology that science leads only to Truth has blinded people (scientists included) into not recognizing the major influence scientific discoveries can have on culture. Finding Truth doesn’t lead only good behaviors; that kind of assumption should have died away with early modern philosophy. By claiming that science is Truth and Truth is automatically good, people wanting to be scientific or science-minded blind themselves to the link between consumerism/postmodernism and the rational and science-minded economic planning practiced since the early 20th century (see John Kenneth Galbraith’s The New Industrial State and Frederick Winslow Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management).
The video below is made by Sabine Hossenfelder, a theoretical physicist, who has also criticized her colleagues’ conflation of math with truth in assessing scientific theories (see Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physicists Astray).
Culture is an area that is often considered noise from the view of science because of the scientific mythos stemming from adopting Descartes’s dualism (where culture is outside the domain of the material). If people aren’t aware of their assumptions they have no reason to reject them. If people aren’t made to critically think about their assumptions then they also have no tools with which to correct themselves.
This brings us back to the domain of culture. Ironically, perhaps, postmodernism and its practitioners also often fail to consider what their tools are actually good for (and what they are not good for).
3.2 Cultural Mythologies and Truth
Postmodernism and postmodern philosophy cannot deny science, because their area of concern, while potentially related to science, lies in a different dimension of sensemaking. Postmodern philosophy can challenge scientific theories in how those theories might be constructed or interpreted, but postmodern philosophy cannot challenge the basis of scientific experimentation or the procedure of science (which, to use post-structuralist terminology, is a kind of performance — see performativity). On the one hand, it is a historic fact that what is considered objective reality has shifted multiple times. On the other hand, anyone looking to deny that there is an objective (shared) reality has not really understood what postmodern philosophy is about (see the previous section on the rise of postmodernism). By denying objective reality, postmodern practitioners create a paradox. Claims about the lack of objective reality are paradoxical:
- Either there is no reality so claims about objective reality are claims about something that doesn’t exist (so the claim refers to nothing and is meaningless).
- There is a reality, in which the claim is wrong (so the claim refers to nothing and is meaningless).
Postmodern philosophy is limited in the sense that at most, postmodern philosophy can only talk about talking about objective reality. Postmodern philosophy has tools that allow us to observe how a shared (and often assumed) criteria could be considered objective. In general, people often adopt shared criteria and then assume that if something doesn’t fit that criterion then that phenomenon cannot be true. They mistake their ideas for what is real as being the criteria for reality, which is a kind of meta-idealism (I just made that term up).
Many teachers of postmodernism also assume that because postmodernism only talks about texts that there is nothing beyond text and textuality (I remember this argument from college). This is a ridiculous conclusion because postmodern philosophy methods are only meant to address the concerns of postmodern philosophers, which were all about textual because postmodern philosophy inherits from structuralism, an approach of examining subjectivity through culture (mostly written culture). Applying postmodern methods outside the areas of concern can easily lead to incoherency. Believing that there is nothing beyond text suggests that nothing existed before writing, which is equally ridiculous as children have a sense of reality even before they learn to read and write.
Ironically, Derrida in Of Grammatology challenges the cultural privilege given to writing over speaking, in direct contradiction to the claim that the text is all that exists.
In general, specialists can fall prey to developing blindness about their own practices. Whether the specialists are cultural theorists or scientists, the assumption/mistake is that having a wide range of subject matter to practice on is the same as being able to legitimately apply their specialty to any subject matter. Being able to apply their concerns on any subject matter, at least superficially, also does not mean that that specialty can adequately or definitively address any concern outside of the area it was developed for.
Interestingly, like the veracity of an argument, the applicability of the given criteria for truth (either scientific or postmodern criteria) will also be independent of the veracity of a subject matter.
For instance, someone might offer a scientist some cultural knowledge as a solution to a given illness. That scientist might then assume that because the knowledge originated from a cultural tradition that this solution is automatically false because it is not scientific. This assumption is incorrect because, at most, all that science can say is that the solution in question is unverified by scientific study. The truth of something is always independent of whether or not it has been verified by science.
- The cultural knowledge might actually be true, despite the scientist’s dismissal.
- The cultural knowledge might actually be false, regardless of the scientist’s dismissal.
Ironically, in both cases, we don’t know if the cultural knowledge in question is accurate unless it is adequately studied first.
In this way, both postmodern practitioners and scientists say too much and not enough when they misunderstanding the basis of the limits of their respective fields.
At this point, since we’ve described the limits of science and postmodern philosophy already, let’s take a step back and look at what each has in common.
Postmodern philosophy looks at the nature of bias. Its original area of study its own philosophical tradition. Post-structuralism’s examples generally apply to the constraints on thinking that (de)legitimatize a given philosophy.
As a general social critique, post-structuralism notes that structuralism, like any abstraction, is formed by a given group that is homogeneous because they share a concern to produce that abstraction. (The homogeneity can be a single ethnicity, scientists, musicians, lawyers, or corporate financiers.) Concerns of that group will betray the biases of that group.
For instance, lawyers writing law will typically primarily address the concerns regarding legality for the practice in question (when they do try to address other concerns, they will look at studies, which may not represent actual concerns of the people effected). Let’s assume the practice in question is shipping. Shipping companies may look at the new law and understand that law as an “extra hoop” they must jump through as that law may not address “on the ground” concerns shipping companies have. In fact, that law may introduce regulations that interfere with the concerns shipping companies (to make a profit, or some other related matter).
Examining the manner of bias is what postmodern philosophy is good for. Cultural theorists have gone far in adopting the methods available for analyzing institutions and social practice, although that analysis is often mixed up with social judgments that are tangential to the methods of analysis (but not the goal of analysis).
The takeaway here is that the general activity of discovering bias is a concern that goes beyond the domain of culture and literature.
In general, bias is the emphasis of some aspects as being more meaningful than other aspects, which may also be meaningful in contexts outside the context enforced by the bias. Biases often come in two flavors.
The bias could be a matter of content, as it is with this Victorian article about penguins rejected by the scientific community contemporary to the writing of the article. The article notes that penguins raped each other and committed necrophilia. Scientists of the Victorian era could not stomach the idea that such perversions were found in nature as that finding contradicted the Victorian ideal of natural purity. Biases of content are easily challenged because they can be more easily recognized when cultural biases shift, or when explanations of phenomena go do not fully explain phenomena.
Biases of form, which are generally what post-structuralism considers, are not obvious. Biases of form, have to do with how context is constructed, which influences both what is considered and how the subject matter is assessed. Getting into the details of this consideration requires another article, but one example is given in the incredibly detailed video below, about Music theory.
The video title is accurate. Essentially the idea of promoting one group’s ideas on music as being THE THEORY OF MUSIC is not really racist. That promotion is ethnocentric (in this case, promoting White Supremacy), although the assumption that music theory is THE THEORY has been used to promote racism and racist ideals.
At this point, it is useful to remember that many related areas of science, including mathematics, also seek to remove bias.
This is why recalling the history of both is salient, and why I started off talking about Thales’s insight. Both science and philosophy (including postmodern philosophy) seek to discover the mechanism by which the world works. These different studies have developed differently to address different concerns in the world.
For instance, culture/language is often concerned with how people get along. Science is concerned with the manifestations of physical causes. Culture is not an area that science can easily explore, perhaps due to ethical and logistic concerns of running deep tests on people/populations and due to the issues of quantitatively capturing qualitative ideas. Likewise, physical causes are not textual in origin, even if they can be thought of through textual constraints.
What is interesting to note, and really the topic for a different article is to consider how bias is uncovered within areas like the philosophy of science, math, or logic.
I am not referring to cultural critics writing about math or science. I am referring to the philosophers of science who are able to expose some of the hidden assumptions by which science has constructed its image. Some such works include Paul Feyerabend (see Against Method), Imre Lakatos (mentioned earlier), and Nancy Cartwright (see How the Laws of Physics Lies).
For math and logic, this same analysis of bias is expressed as the attempt to find a neutral language, one that can equally express any given structure. To express very deep relations between different domains, mathematics, for instance, has developed category theory. A current challenge in category theory has been to find more general expressions of relationships. Some such areas include a call to introduce a ‘pataphysics, categorical cybernetics, or extra-natural transformations.
These are just some examples of “post-structuralist like” turns as each of these kinds of considerations originate from the recognition that a given “standard model” cannot exhaustively capture all salient relationships.
In a sense, there cannot be a set standard model that is complete, as changing contexts will modify what is considered salient, given novel pragmatic concerns will arise from particular situations.
The similarities of consideration of bias despite the very different domains are encouraging. This similarity suggests that while science, math, and philosophy (among many other areas) have progressed within each of their respective domains for the past few hundred years, some acknowledgment of the understandings from each can be used, helping further general sensemaking. After all, any human being may have agency in multiple domains simultaneously.
Thus, despite whatever specific training and interest each of us may have, we do occupy the same shared world, and we do find ourselves faced with incoherencies, challenges, and limitations inherent to whatever our area of expertise is.
As our world continues to deform, due in large part to 21st-century technology, COVID19, or world politics, so the advanced conclusions, perspectives, and concerns of each area will prove to be relevant differently. Adjusting to our respective places in the new era will require effort from each of us. None of us has all the answers. No one domain can answer everything, because each domain developed to address the particular qualities of its area of study.
We all hold different pieces of the missing perspective because each of those perspectives come with different, pragmatic, and individualized concern.
The challenge is to not misapply concerns and to pragmatically recognize what concern requires which solution.
The major difficulty in this challenge is to see how another’s concerns may apply in your situation in ways that you may be blind to. Most often, one cannot see unless one is willing to listen, learn, question, and then learn some more.