In which I bag on post-modernism

Jun 07 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

Right now, we're all painfully aware of attacks on science that come from the political Right. However, let us not forget that such attacks can and have in the past come from the political Left, and that indeed anybody with a political ax to grind, and with a strong identification with some political ideology, will turn on science when it seems that the process of science is not supporting that ideology.

Martin at Aardvarchaeology writes about historians struggling with the "truth be damned" legacy of post-modernism. It reminded me of when I was a naive young scientist, comfortable in the knowledge that the notion of objective reality wasn't anything particularly surprising, and had my first rude encounter with post-modernism. It got me riled up, and I dug around a bit more, horrified by the sorts of crap that was spouted in the name of intellectualism. I sit back and felt superior when I ran into the Sokal Affair, watching wind taken out of the bags of post-modernist writing. I suppose there must be something to it, because some non-science people like my wife get defensive when I bag on "post-modernism" generally, saying that yes, a lot of "intellectual" stuff was written deliberately obfuscated and asserting all sorts of crazy stuff, but that one shouldn't blame all of post-modernism for that.

Who knows. I suppose I don't understand it well enough to know what all of it is, and thus can't condemn it all. But, still, my first encounter was pretty telling, and I know enough to be able to confidently condemn at least some of it.

It was in a faculty dining hall, my first year (if memory serves) at Vanderbilt. I was eating with another astronomer, who had been at Vanderbilt for 10 years. Another professor (whose name I no longer remember) joined us; it was somebody the other astronomer was familiar with. This other professor was from some sort of humanities department: I don't remember which one. The other astronomer introduces me, and mentions that I work on measuring the accelerating expansion of the Universe.

This other professor says immediately, with an air of great assurance, that the only reason we astronomers believe in the Big Bang is because we grew up in a Judeo-Christian culture that has the preconceived notion that there was a moment of beginning.

This floored me, a bit. I mean, I've seen Christians who assert that I'm not a real Christian because I deny the literal truth of the Bible... by, say, accepting the Big Bang theory. Now, suddenly, I'm told that the only reason I think there's anything to the Big Bang theory is that I'm too Christian.

I start sputtering, trying to talk about evidence, redshifts, cosmic microwave background, nucleosynthesis and ratios of the elements, but he just waves it all off. To him, the fact that I, and the vast majority of research astronomers in the last century, grew up in a culture whose philosophical tradition includes a "beginning moment" is enough evidence that the Big Bang is simply science's projection of that cultural tradition.

I point out that he's not even historically accurate. The Big Bang was the new theory that came to be accepted starting in the 1960's; at the time, the notion of a Universe that was today very different from what it was a long time ago was radical. The notion that the Universe had evolved to its current state from a hot and dense state was not obvious at all. However, that's where the evidence pointed, so that's why scientists all started accepting the new picture.

Before that, most scientists accepted something called the "Steady-State Universe." In that picture, the Universe is today the same as it has always been. The Universe is expanding— we've known that since Hubble's observations in the 1929 discovery. In the Steady-State Universe, it expands, but as it does so matter is continuously created. As such, the density of the Universe remains (on average) the same over time.

This humanities professor, upon hearing about this one says, "Ah, that's nice. I like that one better." At that point, though, lunch was over, so we all got up and went our separate ways.

Humanities people out there, take note; it's things like this that lead scientists to question whether humanities people are all erudite-sounding false intellectuals. This guy was so arrogant, so secure in his own notions that he completely dismissed a whole other field of study as cultural bias, even though he knew basically nothing about it. Of course, I've just done that with humanities, and I know that that isn't right; there is real scholarship there. But sometimes, they try to dabble in the sciences, and, as the Sokal Affair shows, much of what is produced cannot be described as anything other than crap.

It was after this encounter that I started digging around to learn what this post-modernism stuff was. I learned the name "post-modernist" after starting to dig, but of course I'd heard it before; it was only after that that I came to appreciate the degree to which it was a banner flown by horrendously anti-science forces. The notion that all knowledge is simply a "social construction" is batty. Yes, the way in which we express the laws of physics are certainly influenced by our culture. But the actual value of the speed of light, the way in which gravity interacts with objects of a given mass— there's nothing Western or Patriarchal or Imperialist or Male about that. Science is based on the assumption that there is an objective reality that we are trying, however imperfectly, to understand. And, indeed, science is always implicitly testing that assumption. If it weren't a good assumption, a whole lot of what we do simply wouldn't work.

Let's be realists here and recognize at least this part of post-modernism for what it is: crap. Not some sort of deep effete intellectual insight, but just crap. And, generally, obfuscated crap— probably written that way to hide the fact that there is nothing underneath it.

38 responses so far

  • Pseudonym says:

    You'll probably find this article amusing, if you haven't seen it already.

  • Robert says:

    Stupid is stupid no matter what your department.

  • For another point of view, see the Deep Grace of Theory blog:
    http://deepgraceoftheory.wordpress.com/
    It's written by my former English professor, Janet Blumberg. My frustrations with literary criticism, especially the deconstructionists, eventually drove me out of grad school, but in anyone could eschew the obfuscation and make sense of it, it's Janet. Having had a few run-ins with PZ's crowd, I think she'd welcome an exchange with a scientist who is also a theist, like yourself. 🙂

  • Dealing with literature people one-on-one, I've found that many of them can be insightful, interesting folk. (I found the process enjoyable enough that I almost got a literature minor — the only thing which stopped me was a technicality I didn't feel like fighting over the last term of my senior year.) However, I also noticed a couple things which might be classified under "emergent properties":
    1. You can't put more than three or four lit-crit people (or poets) in a room together and expect sense to come out. Instead, for N people in the room, after t hours you'll get a quantity of nonsense which scales as a polynomial or sometimes even an exponential function of Nt.
    2. Even if an individual literature-type person comes up with an interesting idea, it's almost impossible to hear about or find it later, because ideas are not transmitted in accord with sensible measures of their worth.

  • Speaking of which, did you hear about quantum feminism?

  • Rob Knop says:

    You can't put more than three or four lit-crit people (or poets) in a room together and expect sense to come out.
    Heck, that's true of people in general.
    I've heard it said that the effective IQ of a committee is the lowest individual IQ of any member, divided by the number of members on a committee.
    -Rob

  • Orac says:

    Sadly, you're not at all alone in having idiotic PoMo people claiming that your entire field of endeavor is nothing more than a "social construct." They drive me crazy when they claim that evidence-based medicine drives the postmodernists crazy, causing some to go so far as to label it "fascism" (well, "microfascism," anyway).

  • Martin R says:

    I'm with you, man. Obscure speech reveals the obscure mind. I was a PhD student in the 90s at an archaeology department where po-mo was the "hegemonic discourse". It was painful. But I think we've seen the worst of it now.

  • Dunc says:

    PoMo's fine as long as you keep it where it belongs - literary criticism, and to a certain extent history (where that history is based on literary sources). It makes perfect sense to regard those areas in terms of competing stories, strongly influenced by the writer's culture and intent. You can't sensibly read Tacitus without taking a slightly PoMo approach.
    However, it has absolutely no place in the physical sciences.

  • Martin R says:

    Dunc, what you're talking about is late-19th century historical source criticism, a hugely useful set of tools that all good historians have used since.

  • Drugmonkey says:

    Pseudonym, thanks for the link. I attended a college where the English and philo types specialized in this stuff. It was entertaining for a while but I'm glad I don't have to interact with 'em professionally.
    Meta: (can i say that? )- the post linked by pseudonym actually bears some thinking about in terms of the way we approach our own scientific jargon and i was particularly struck by the comments regarding communication and getting someone else to pay for our work. the grant process anyone?

  • Rob Knop says:

    Orac: ah, yes, the notion that "evidence based" is just some particular narrow way of doing things.
    Evidence is evidence no matter where you come from. Your cultural biases may lead you to dismiss some evidence that you should have paid attention to, or to overweigh some evidence that isn't as meaningful as you think... but to dismiss the very notion of the value of evidence? That's only an "valid alternate viewpoint" insofar as stupidity is valid....
    -Rob

  • Christopher says:

    The term post-modernism is too widely and vaguely used these days, and I wouldn't try to defend it. But I think there is a subtely you are missing. "Social Construct" does not necessarily mean "cultural in origin," but can refer to any range of concepts or abstracts that arise from human understanding. The question you are being asked (a question you do not seem to think requires an answer) is, "What do you mean by objective reality?" If you are describing something (which science does), then what you have at the end is not the thing itself, but a description, and therein lies the issue. Not only is the description man-made, but the things it describes are "picked out" by the describer. Why should speed be a thing? Why is light a phenomenon unto itself? You can certainly disagree with the assertion that there is any value in asking questions like this, but the point is to acknowledge that even under the strictest scientific discipline, what counts as part of one phenomenon, or one object, or one event, are all generally picked out by people - those distintions come from our side, not from the side of "objective reality." And that is what "social construct" means. It is not a statement about the correctness or usefullness of science, but an acknowledgement that every theory is developed to explain an already pre-selected world-view, and that view is has it origin in the theorist, not in the theory, and not in the world.

  • Rob Knop says:

    Christopher--
    I don't completely agree.
    Yes, the way that we express things is certainly the result of our world-view and the way that we choose to describe them. And, certainly, our understanding of just what is objective reality is imperfect, and what we understand depends on the history of the scientific endeavor, which is the part of culture. So, yes, at the end we have the description... but it's a description based in something other than our own internal mind-wanderings. As such, it is not purely a social construction. Yes, the description itself is influenced by our culture, but the description itself is also influenced by the nature of reality that exists independent of our cultural predispositions.
    If two different groups from vastly different world-views with extremely different ways of expressing the laws of physics were to perform the same experiment, they would get the same answer. That's what I mean in saying that there is such a thing as "objective reality." I can't define it succinctly, easily, but it is that thing that is out there regardless of the biases or preconceptions of those who attempt to measure and understand it.
    an acknowledgement that every theory is developed to explain an already pre-selected world-view,
    I don't acknowledge that. I don't think that statement is correct. If you really think that it is, then I don't understand why you would think there is any point at all in science. It's just a much more expensive and self-deceptive way of doing creative writing, at that point.
    -Rob

  • Christopher says:

    I appreciate your response.
    I am not sure that anyone would disagree that radically diffent cultures could (and would) develop systems that would essentially produce the same results. What the post-modern (and by post-modern, what I really mean is pragmatist, at least as far as the American tradition goes) position is proposing is that the true value of science lies in its ability to provide us with a system that allows us to predict the behavior of our world and harness our knowledge to accomplish our own ends. The question the pragmatist is asking is, what value-add is there to the idea that scientific theory somehow corresponds to objective reality? If the theory provides a mechanism by which I can reproducibly predict the behavior of the universe, and can apply that prediction to accomplish my desired ends, then what differnece does it make whether or not there is an "objective reality" and whether or not my theory actually represents it? What the pragmatist is saying (I am echoing Richard Rorty here), is that the value-add of the theory has absolutley nothing to do with correspondence to reality. And that is where the post-modern relativist really gains traction: the idea that science accurately reflects reality only means anything to those who hold a pre-existing notion about the intrinsic value of absolute truth. Once we've acknowledged that only practical application has any value with repect to the human project, then claims about "objective reality" become nothing more than Platonic claims about what is "really real." And the pragmatist can dismiss those claims on the grounds that they accomplish nothing. The pragmatist is not denying the value (to human beings) of science; the pragmatist is denying that anything is gained by asserting that science is providing anything more than a tool-set for improving our subjective projects. At the end of the day, you can certainly assert the "objective" speed of light. But the pragmatist will point out that the objective speed of light only means something when applied in the pursuit of entitrely subjective goals.
    What the pragmatists will ultimately claim is that the need of the scientist to be certain that theory correctly represents reality is nothing more than a need for external, eternal, non-human validation; a need that the pragmatists argue might be inconsequential with respect to science, but is generally counter-productive if allowed to flourish in the over-all human project.
    My point is not to dispute the value of science, not to suggest that reality is somehow relative. The point is, again, to acknowledge that all human understanding is, ultimately, NOTHING BUT human understanding. There is no escaping "socially constructed" ideas, no matter how much "objective" evidence we assemble!

  • Rob Knop says:

    What the pragmatist is saying... is that the value-add of the theory has absolutley nothing to do with correspondence to reality.... the pragmatist is denying that anything is gained by asserting that science is providing anything more than a tool-set for improving our subjective projects.
    I disagree with this viewpoint strongly.
    The logical conclusion of that viewpoint is that the only point of basic science is if it will be the basis for something *useful*. And, indeed, a lot of people from all sides of the political fence do think that. I do not. The greatest value of basic science comes not from the fact that it is laying the groundwork for life-enhancing R&D decades from now, but that it is satisfying our natural human curiosity, our drive to explore, our desire as a species to know what is over the next hill.
    And, yeah, again, you can say, well, sure, so that's the human project that's being improved by basic science even if there is no objective reality. But once again, I come back to saying that that view leads to some kinds of basic science -- including, say, extragalactic astronomy, which will never have any "practical" value -- as nothing more than expensive creative writing.
    One of my hobbies is roleplaying games. In so doing, I love to build worlds. However, what I'm doing when I'm doing that is *very* different from what I'm doing when I'm doing science. One is fiction, the other is reality. If you really think that there is no value in believing in objective reality when constructing scientific theory, then there's not any difference between creating fictional worlds for novels or roleplaying games on the one hand, and on the other hand theorizing about cosmology, fundamental particle physics, or other things that are at spatial and energy scales that they will never have any practical application on the human scale.
    The point is, again, to acknowledge that all human understanding is, ultimately, NOTHING BUT human understanding.
    This too I disagree with, strongly. I don't believe that we are in some sort of self-constructed view of the Matrix. I believe that there is more to what we perceive than the perception itself. That while, yes, human understanding is ultimately nothing but a set of biological structures in our brains, our brains are not closed systems. Those structures are influenced by things that are outside ourselves, and outside humanity.
    Yes, obviously, it's convolved, but this viewpoint as stated is inconsistent with the basic assumption of scientific research--- an assumption that's implicitly tested every day as the scientific method continues to produce meaningful results.
    -Rob

  • Alex says:

    A very good book about this whole subject is "The Social Construction of What?" by Ian Hacking. He's a philosopher who attempts, with very good results, to explain these concepts to non-philosophers, and particularly in terms that make some degree of sense to physical scientists. I'm still made very uncomfortable by phrases like "the social construction of the electron", but I understand and sympathize with social construction in general much more than before reading this book.
    If you are describing something (which science does), then what you have at the end is not the thing itself, but a description, and therein lies the issue. Not only is the description man-made, but the things it describes are "picked out" by the describer.
    Not only that, but Hacking identifies another level where the act of picking out and labeling something (particularly a person or group of people) makes the thing itself adjust in response to the label. Consider the term "aboriginal". Those groups of people who are thus labeled do in fact have something in common with each other; but the mere fact that they've been so labeled brings along a change in attitude, politics, etc. as they react to/against/with that label.
    Even non-human animals and inanimate objects end up changing because of the labels applied to them because of how humans treat them differently. Consider the term "wetlands" for example - at one point, these terrains were just another type of useless property to be transformed into more useful forms (farmland, suburbs, cities) through various construction projects. Now, they are quite distinct from other forms of "waste" land in ways that have both increased and decreased their perceived value (depending on whether you're taking a global view or the view of the individual property owner).

  • Rob Knop says:

    Not only that, but Hacking identifies another level where the act of picking out and labeling something (particularly a person or group of people) makes the thing itself adjust in response to the label.
    Alex -- but both of your examples are different in a fundamental way from the electron, the speed of light, or any of that.
    First: Aboriginal: give people that name, and they adjust. But that's normal human society; we're all interacting with each other, and change our reactions based on how others interact with us.
    Second: Wetlands: the relabeling of them does not change what they are. It changes how we view them and how we respond to them.
    -Rob

  • Wow! Rob has managed to get a true conversation going about the meaning of "socially constructed" and the nature of disciplinary descriptions! I've been attempting this for weeks on my own weblog! This is so encouraging! (Christopher and Alex are great. Way to go, in my humble opinion.)
    Rob, I'm afraid I agree with your wife! I appreciate that you did read Culler on deconstruction and actually tried to learn something about it before you bagged on it. But don't you think "crap" might be just a little bit strong (not to say illiberal)? I am so tired of all the "crap" that is the standard way of "understanding" Derrida and "deconstruction" and "socially constructed" in science circles. And you guys complain that quantum theory is misunderstood and misused!
    We don't understand Derrida (or Lacan OR IRIGARAY) over here, because they became a vogue over here without the deep intellectual underpinnings that bring their contributions into focus. (Sokal is both right and wrong. Right about the shallowness of the bandwagon. Wrong about the substance of French poststructuralist thought.)
    Nobody is saying "SCIENCE IS (MERELY) SOCIALLY CONSTRUCTED," because what this means to us over here has nothing to do with the real work being done. (Lacan strongly supports the objectivism of science.) I'm guess, encouraged by Jennifer, that I'm going to dare to put an actual explanation of Derrida on my blog and see if anyone reads it.
    But it's a lot harder to do this than Dawkins and Dennett explaining neo-Darwinianism (so brilliantly) to general audiences, because they and their audiences are both operating within the same basic intellectual tradition (basically the one coming out of British rationalism and empiricism, Descartes and Hume, that we speakers of English all take for granted...).
    I have to ask my audience to be willing learn a "new language," in terms of which to think, one which took me decades to become fluent in. And before you assert there is only one language for thought, the language of "reason," think about the various "complementary" models and the unlimited "thought experiments" (most of which lead nowhere but are still an incredibly fruitful technique) and "boldly oversimplified idealisms" (Dennett) and the possible mathematical universes and the paradigm shifts (as from Newton to Einstein) that carry mathematics and physics forward into the unknown!
    Most of all, entertain the notion that theory in non-scientific fields is just as evidence-based as in your own scientific ways of knowing. You don't recognize the evidence because you are looking for the evidence relevant to scientific theorizing. This is a huge category mistake. We do not KNOW how incommensurable theorizing about different kinds of systems may be -- that is decades or centuries down the road, and even then we will be talking about systems as humans are equipped to measure them. We used to think everything in the universe could be plotted on one single absolute and universal grid of time and space, and now we suppose dimensions folded within dimensions and see how space and time have different measurements to different observational perspectives. So we don't yet know whether physical reality is finally itself the kind of thing that will be conceivable as a unified and commensurate set of systems. We can only hope (have faith). Okay, okay, I'm teasing you now, and I'm ranting on and on! I will stop. Some folks allege I never learned to paragraph! So this is the "Orwellian squid" (prone to disappear into a cloud of ink....) signing off.

  • Eric Wallace says:

    Rob,
    I read Cristopher's comment about statements about the existence, or lack thereof, of an "objective reality" making little difference to the scientific enterprise somewhat differently, I think, than you. We interact with the world through our senses, and the only evidence we have, ultimately, for our scientific theories is the evidence of our senses. My reading of the pragmatist argument, as presented by Christopher, is that if a Kantian comes along and tells us that we're really only seeing phenomena, and the "things in themselves" will forever be unknowable to us, it doesn't really matter whether he's right. Either we say he's wrong, the things I observe, and the measurements I make really do tell me about what's really there, or we respond that the only world we will ever know about is the world we perceive through our senses, and that's the world we want to learn about. If there's some deeper reality that we can never know about, it makes no difference; there's no use speculating about things whose existence we can never find evidence for or against, precisely because of that lack of evidence. We, as scientists, observe the world we see, come up with theories that explain what we see and predict new things, and if we then see the things we predicted, we figure we done good. The possibility of an objective reality with which we cannot interact does not ultimately affect our enterprise of understanding and explaining the reality with which we can and do interact.
    Of course, it's possible that this was exactly the reading with which you were disagreeing to begin with, but I'm willing to look like an idiot if one more comment will increase the likelihood of me occasionally seeing discussions of philosophy on science blogs. 🙂

  • agm says:

    We interact with the world through our senses, and the only evidence we have, ultimately, for our scientific theories is the evidence of our senses.
    ::Buzzer sounding::
    Nope. Wrong. Flat-out wrong. The fact that people are typing these statements into computers if sufficient proof that there is more to the world than what we can see just with our senses. The point is that we can apply human faculties to explore all sorts of things that we are not equipped to sense as humans -- and then do anything from simply enjoying knowledge about how a chunk of nature works to enriching people's lives with technological applications of this knowledge. And the electrons floating around, say, the ionosphere, or in the sun, or in galaxies we can't interact with, they exist and do what they do, independent of what we do, or how we think about them, or what we say about their moms, etc. Radioactive isotopes in the earth's crust decay, irregardless of what we say about them or think about them. The fusion processes powering the sun, the magnetic fields in the interplanetary medium, the mosquito sucking your blood, the creatures deep under the sea that we haven't discovered yet but have reason to think exist -- they all do what they do irregardless of whether humans exist to think about them, or to develop knowledge about them. That is what we mean when talking about objective reality -- that which is, even if no human ever evolved/was created/was reincarnated/etc.

  • Dave says:

    Hi Rob,
    You might be interested to know that the view of your anonymous humanities professor is shared by a famous astronomer, namely Geoffrey Burbidge. He was one of the original proponents of the Steady State Theory back in the 50's - before they realized that Cosmology was about to become a data driven field. And it is certainly true that at least some of the Big Bang theory pioneers, were really interested in the moment of creation because of the Judeo-Christian connection. (This is Georges Lemaitre, of course.) When I talked to him, in the early 90's, the COBE results were out, and the observational support for the Big Bang was very strong. Nevertheless, he was still at work adding yet more bells and whistles to the Steady State theory to try and make it consistent with all the latest Big Bang evidence. He was particularly upset with inflationary cosmology (which had little observational support at the time), and he said something like "Alan Guth is the worst thing to happen to cosmology." But, when I mentioned a recent paper from Guth with a "steady state" version of inflation, he was suddenly quite happy about Guth's work. (This was some theory where most of the Universe is in a "steady state" of inflation, and "big bang" universes, like out own, are constantly being formed inside the larger inflating universe.) Anyway, it just seemed like he was a bit of a sore loser, when the evidence came out against the Steady State theory.
    Of course, his most famous work, the BBFH paper on the production of elements in stars actually supports the Big Bang since they found that stars could produce all the elements but Helium, whereas the Big Bang could produce only Helium (plus traces of a few other light elements).

  • Rob Knop says:

    Yeah, Burbidge has gone a bit nutso. You can find all sorts of papers, mostly by Arp but sometimes including Burbidge, which assert that at least some quasars aren't at cosmological distances, and are in fact ejected by galaxies. This is a viewpoint that very, very, very few astronomers find anywhere near convincing. I will probably blog about it at some point....
    -Rob

  • archgoon says:

    Janet Leslie Blumberg:

    And before you assert there is only one language for thought, the language of "reason," think about the various "complementary" models and the unlimited "thought experiments" (most of which lead nowhere but are still an incredibly fruitful technique) and "boldly oversimplified idealisms" (Dennett) and the possible mathematical universes and the paradigm shifts (as from Newton to Einstein) that carry mathematics and physics forward into the unknown!

    I'm looking at Newton. I'm looking at Einstein. I'm totally failing to see how they did not use 'reason' to argue their points.

  • Matthew L. says:

    agm: The fact that computers work may or may not be proof that there are things that we can't perceive directly (that would be straying into the realist/antirealist debate in philosphy of science), but it certainly isn't proof that we interact with the world in ways other than our senses. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I assume that you know about your computer by touching and seeing it, maybe smelling the new electronics smell when you took it out of the box, or hearing its fans.
    Ultimately, however, I need to verify claims about things like computers with my senses, either directly, or through observing instruments based on other scientific theories (telescopes, electrophoresis, etc).
    The antirealist position (and I assume the postmodernist, although I don't have any experience there), is not that fusion, or stars, or electrons exist because people think about them, but that you have no evidence outside of our theories, and experiments, that they do exist at all, and whether or not the things are human made, theories and experiments clearly are human made things.

  • Eric Wallace says:

    agm:
    I agree that the fact that when I type things into my computer, things happen is evidence that what we perceive corresponds to some sort of objective reality. I'm not trying to argue against the existence of that objective reality. But the only source of such evidence that I have is my physical interaction with the world around me, be it tactile, visual, etc. It's strong evidence, and I've yet to find an argument for the idea that what we perceive isn't what's really there that I found convincing. All I'm saying is that if someone tells me that what I perceive isn't exactly the same as what's really there, it won't affect my behavior one whit, because my senses (and the testimony of others based on their senses) are all I have to go on, because that's how I interact with the world. There may or may not be anything to the idea that there's an underlying reality that I can never perceive, but either way it's useless to me if I can't perceive it.
    I think I see where you're coming from with your counterexamples, but I think you're misunderstanding what I mean by the evidence of my senses. We wouldn't know about those galaxies with which we can't interact if light (or radio waves or whatever) had not come from them to our telescopes, and produced something we can see. Same goes for things that are too small to see with the naked eye. There are all sorts of things that we can do, and all sorts of machines that we can build to make these things perceptible to our senses, but in the end, the only direct evidence we get for these things comes from our senses. The fact that our theories predict things that turn out to be there, and that we can build those things that let us perceive them, provide strong evidence for objective reality, and I find theories that claim that what we see isn't what's really there rather silly. I am by no stretch of the imagination endorsing the position that any of it is human made in the sense that it wouldn't be there if we weren't there to perceive it. I'm just saying that even if it were true that what we perceive were not really what was there, there would be no sensible course of action but to keep on acting as though it is, simply because I would have no way of knowing that it wasn't, and no way of responding to that knowledge if I did. I happen to believe that what I perceive is what's really there. But I also think that if it weren't, and if I could never perceive what was actually there, it would be irrelevant.

  • agm says:

    Matthew L,
    The question of whether coconuts are migratory is quite a different thing than whether I perceive them to be migratory. And so with a computer -- how my computer functions is not a function of how I perceive it. I perceive that it allows me to do certain things. I perceive that I can interact with it and use it for various ends. I do not perceive anything about the shunting around of electrons in the circuits in the chips on the motherboard as I use the computer to write this. I do not perceive the electromagnetic waves connecting it via wifi to the Internet. If I drink enough beer quickly enough, I'm not perceiving anything, yet the computer would soldier on.
    That is my point about "objective" reality.

  • Matthew L. says:

    Yes, I agree that a property of your computer is that it exists whether or not you perceive it. What I am arguing is that you have no way of knowing 1) that your computer exists and 2) things exist when you're not looking, outside your mind, etc, unless you combine observations and theorizing.
    To say that, say, a rock exists independent of you is not something that you observe, it is something you infer as a result of a theory about the world. I think that this is the best theory, and I even think it is right (other theories, such as that we have some sort of shared delusion about the rock are just silly), but it remains a theory.
    As Hume pointed out, you can't even observe something as simple as cause and effect---what you see if you kick a rock is your foot moving towards the rock, then the rock flying off in that same direction. The causality is not something there next to the rock that you can see, it is something you deduce from what you do see.
    Your point about objective reality is that it exists independently of yourself. Very well. My point about objective reality is that your experience of objective reality, including its objectivity, is subjective.

  • agm says:

    Eric Wallace,
    The problem is that the post up top, as I first interpreted it, is exactly about people claiming that there is no "objective" reality and thus pissing off people who are engaged in endeavors that on some level require the use of some sort of idea of "objective" reality. When people start arguing for that position, or at least putting themselves in a position that can be interpreted as arguing that, some confusion may arise (and I admit, I confuse easily).
    Nonetheless, discussions about a scientific understanding of reality simply ought not to be divorced from how science is actually done. Science is something done affirmatively and proactively. It is as much "Here's something interesting we saw when we did this", and shoving lots and lots of stuff under the rug, and all the while trying to talk people into giving you more money to keep doing this funky stuff and asking oddball questions as it is anything else.
    A little less broadly,
    The notion that all knowledge is simply a "social construction" is batty. Yes, the way in which we express the laws of physics are certainly influenced by our culture.
    seemed to generate the reply
    The possibility of an objective reality with which we cannot interact does not ultimately affect our enterprise of understanding and explaining the reality with which we can and do interact.
    While I agree with the reply on some level, as a practical matter that's just not how science is done or applied.

  • Rob Knop says:

    As Hume pointed out, you can't even observe something as simple as cause and effect---what you see if you kick a rock is your foot moving towards the rock, then the rock flying off in that same direction. The causality is not something there next to the rock that you can see, it is something you deduce from what you do see.
    OK, I disagree with this.
    Our belief in objective reality is grounded in the fact that we are testing the hypothesis over and over and over again that the notion of objective reality works. Yes, we see the foot moving, yes, we see the rock flying. However, every scientific experiment or observation, never mind loads of things people do every day, test theories that implicitly include notions of cause and effect... and they keep working.
    Sure, just because last time I dropped my keys they fell down doesn't mean that they absolutely must fall down next time-- science never absolutely proves anything. But, at some point, it becomes silly to sit around and pretend we're being intellectual by entertaining the possibility that next time we let go of our keys, they might float up, just 'cause cause and effect isn't real and just 'cause the whole objective gravity thing is nothing more than our construction to explain varied events that we observed.
    Yes, in fact, we do observe cause and effect, because we reconstruct what happened, thing of other ways to test that, and see that the other ways that test it also work. You call it deduction, but deduction works.
    Your point about objective reality is that it exists independently of yourself. Very well. My point about objective reality is that your experience of objective reality, including its objectivity, is subjective.
    This kind of reasoning sounds to me very much like a dressed up version of a creationist presidential candidate, when asked if the world was created 6000 years ago or not, saying, "I don't know, I wasn't there."
    We know more than we perceive. Please do not take away our ability to think and conclude things about reality based on vast quantities of consistent observations that confirm something we don't observe directly-- including things like cause and effect.
    -Rob

  • Christopher says:

    Wow, that became an argument about skepticism way too quickly for my comfort! Just to avoid the association, I'd like to point out that my original comments made no crazy claims to the end that science didn't work, wasn't reliable, or that things (like, computers, rocks, photons, etc) may not exist. Existence and the relations of the senses to whatever may or may not be out there is not really what's at stake in this post-modern / pragmatist question. What's really being said is that regardless of what reality may be, our experience of it is never objective. What we call true is not true because it "corresponds to reality" but because it explains the perceived phenomenon that we decide are relevent, is agreed to be consitent, and produces practical results. None of that has anything to do with "objective reality." Truth has far more to do with consensus then it does with correspondence. And we may all agree that our theories are "true" today, only to discover tomorrow a radically different way of looking at things. And how will we decide which of the two is "more true?" By deciding which produces better predictions and enables us to do more with our universe. And in 20 years, people will be having this same discussion, arguing that this new view is true because "that is the way the universe really works, " and will be perfectly content to forget how certain we were that our science correctly represented the way things really were.

  • Rob Knop says:

    Truth has far more to do with consensus then it does with correspondence. And we may all agree that our theories are "true" today, only to discover tomorrow a radically different way of looking at things. And how will we decide which of the two is "more true?" By deciding which produces better predictions and enables us to do more with our universe.
    Well, OK, I agree with the latter parts of this, and certainly with the last setnense. But.
    I would say that, as with my experience with philosophers a year ago, that probably the two sides are much closer than you'd think, but we constantly talk around each other because we aren't using words exactly the same way.
    Is the Big Bang theory "true"? Well, there are gradations. Do we know that the Universe began in an initial singularity? Absolutely not. Do we know that it evolved to its current state from an earlier very hot and dense state? Almost certainly. That "almost" is in there because, as you note, the Big Bang theory is just the theory that does an amazingly good job of describing a large number of observations, including observations that directly probe a few different epochs of that hot and dense state. I don't think we'll ever say that the Big Bang is "wrong" any more than we say that Newton's gravity is "wrong" -- Newton's gravity is merely incomplete.
    Where I get hung up is when you take the imperfection of our knowledge about the Universe, and turn it around and express what *sounds to me* (and this could be the language problem again) as it not being an imperfect understanding of what's really going on, but just the current nature of the Universe as we understand it. Did that make sense? In other words, we hold the Big Bang theory to be "right" today, because its predictions *within a certain regime* (see here for more on that) confirm that it is the correct picture *beyond any reasonable doubt.* The same with evolution. This doesn't mean that the whole picture has painted, nor that there are no doubts whatsoever... but after a while, it becomes silly to doubt the truth given the huge amount of supporting evidence. (And, alas, whenever a scientist is honest, and expresses that understanding is imperfect, creationists jump all over it and misrepresent the statement as an admission that there's something wrong with the Big Bang, or with Evolution, or with any number of other things.)
    In the future, people may have a different picture, just as we today have a different picture of Gravity. It seems to be *radically* different from Newton's picture... but it can be shown to incorporate all of Newton's picture in certain regimes. The Universe hasn't changed, nor has even the things that we perceive change. Apples fall and planets orbit the same way they did in the 1600's. It's just that we're probing regimes we hadn't probed before.
    So when you say that truth has more to do with consensus than with correspondence -- I just can't get behind that. The commonly accepted picture, yes, has to do with consensus. But if you look here, on Slide #8, you'll see that when I (as a scientist) try to diagram the mess that is the real scientific method in action, "truth" is something that is the goal, but which every honest scientist admits that we at best approximate. And, indeed, real "truth" may be inattainable. But this doesn't mean that what is really going on in the Universe depends on our consensus of what we think is going on!
    -Rob

  • Christopher says:

    > But this doesn't mean that what is really going on in the Universe depends on our consensus of what we think is going on!
    Of course not, that would be ludicrous. The problem here is with the understanding of "truth" (I put it in quotes most of the time for a reason.) You are taking it for granted that truth is "out there" - that however the universe really is is "true." But the argument here is that truth is not a fact about the universe, it is a fact about human understanding. Truth is "in here." Subsequently, whether or not a theory is true is only secondarily related to the universe, if at all. Truth, then (the kind in here) is never objective, because human beings are never (and are in fact incapable of being)objective.
    I don't think we're in disagreement on the whole: when you point to the world and say "scientific theory describes that, " then I nod my head and say, "Yes, it does." What we're disagreeing about is whether or not the thing you are pointing to is "objective reality", or our socially-constructed (in the broad sense) conception of it.
    Agree of not, it's been a fun debate!

  • Rob Knop says:

    I think that you and I mean different things when we use the word "truth."
    You are taking it for granted that truth is "out there" - that however the universe really is is "true."
    Yes -- I view that as one of the implicit foundations of the scientific world view.
    But the argument here is that truth is not a fact about the universe, it is a fact about human understanding.
    I wouldn't call that truth, myself. The statement "Currently, we understand the Big Bang to be the correct picture of the Universe at least back to the epoch of nucleosynthesis" is a truth, I would agree. But I wouldn't call the Big Bang theory itself necessarily a "truth." It's something that's almost certainly right within a certain range, but not necessarily a truth. For the rest of what you're saying -- that truth is subjective to human perception -- to make sense, then you must be defining truth a bit differently from how I am... *or* you must think that the first reality I described as "truth" is somehow less fundamental than our understanding of it.
    -Rob

  • Macht says:

    For what it's worth, I recently wrote a post about why Lacan was so unclear.

  • "the only reason we astronomers believe in the Big Bang is because we grew up in a Judeo-Christian culture that has the preconceived notion that there was a moment of beginning."
    This is contradicted by Einstein's cosmological constant which he introduced to prevent his model of the universe from expanding (or contracting).

  • Chris Taylor says:

    You say "Right now, we're all painfully aware of attacks on science that come from the political Right."
    I think many 'scientists'* in academia are aware of attacks on science from the Right because that is where they expect them to come from. That is where they are looking, so that is where they see them. Academics generally lean much more Left than the rest of the country and, as most people do, also generally think that people like them are good while people different from them are bad (even if they claim to believe in multiculturalism). Since academic scientists think science is good, then the enemies of science must surely come primarily from the conservatives... right? Surely good thinking progressives wouldn't be against science... or worse use the color of science or their job as 'scientists'* to promote some non-scientific idea? Of course attacks on science come from Progressives! But that's not where most people in university science depts. think to look for them, so they don't notice them as much. You don't see what you don't look for. OTOH these same people turn over every nook and cranny of conservatism to find anti-scientific ideas, and they shout to the heavens the confirmation of their bias when they find them.
    It is like a lazy police officer who knows that unless they are molested, most child murders are committed by family or close friends. So when a child is murdered he looks for which family member to lock up. This attitude will lead more non-family member murderers to get away and the statistics will be even more biased. So they look harder for a family member to pin the next murder on.
    You are doing a good service by showning that attacks on science can come from a wide range of places. From the right. From the left. From post modern humanities professors. Even, people with 'Scientist' on their business card. The attacks that pose the greatest danger to science as a method of finding the truth are those which sneak in where the 'defenders of science' are either not looking or, worse, are unwilling to expose even when they know about them for fear of tarnishing some culture or movement or person they like.
    If Leftist scientists in acadmeic science depts. started looking under the rocks of many 'progressive' causes I think they'd be suprised and shocked at how dangerously unscientific and magically thinking people who dress and talk and vote like them can be. IMHO science is hurt far more by one selfish, arrogant, limelight-seeking astronomy professor who in public rails loudly against the dangers of pseuodoscentific thinking while in private he encourages his collegues to publish incorrect data and promote flawed theories as a neccesary evil to achieve some important policial/social/Revolutionary/cultural goal than it is by all the congregations of snakehandling evolution-deniers in all the backwoods coal-mining towns you can find. The latter simply doesn't have the cultural or political or economic power to stop science (even if they can limit the teaching of a few scientifically derived theories to their and their neighbor's children). The former has the power to corrupt the very foundation of the scientific method from within while recieving accolades from the people who should be trying to protect it.
    Glad to see a little of the iconoclast in you showing up again.
    *In this I mean people who introduce themselves as 'scientists' at parties because it is in their job description, not neccesarily people who are scientists because they follow the scientific method and have the intellectual integrity to evaluate evidence without prejudice about where it will lead them or what is popular or where all the funding dollars are going to be this fiscal year.

  • jack says:

    Don't most infants realize that objects persist even when not currently observed after something like 8 or 10 months? Did social constructivists never make it to that phase of developement?