What can come of a scientific engagement with postmodern philosophy? Some scientists have claimed that the social sciences and humanities have nothing to contribute, except perhaps peripherally, to their research. Dorothea E. Olkowski shows that the historic link between science and philosophy, mathematics itself, plays a fundamental role in the development of the worldviews that drive both fields. Focusing on language, its expression of worldview and usage, she develops a phenomenological account of human thought and action to explicate the role of philosophy in the sciences. Olkowski proposes a model of phenomenology, both scientific and philosophical, that helps make sense of reality and composes an ethics for dealing with unpredictability in our world.
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About the Author
Dorothea E. Olkowski is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs and Director of the Cognitive Studies Minor. She is author of Gilles Deleuze and the Ruin of Representation and Resistance, Flight, Creation: Feminist Enactments of French Philosophy and editor (with Christina Schües and Helen A. Fielding) of Time in Feminist Phenomenology (IUP, 2011).
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Postmodern Philosophy and the Scientific Turn
By Dorothea E. Olkowski
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2012 Dorothea E. Olkowski
All rights reserved.
SCIENTIFIC WORLDVIEWS AND THE SOKAL HOAX
* * *
Cooler Than Thou?
The controversial, sham essay, written by the physicist Alan Sokal and published in 1996, possibly to its great mortification, by the cultural studies journal Social Text, begins with a statement that is no hoax but that rings true for many, if not most, researchers in the natural sciences. The statement is that "there are many natural scientists, and especially physicists, who continue to reject the notion that the disciplines concerned with social and cultural criticism can have anything to contribute, except perhaps peripherally, to their research." This view is affirmed by Steven Weinberg, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, in comments appearing in The New York Review of Books. Admitting that he found the news of Sokal's hoax amusing (a view shared by other physicists who have spoken or written about these events), Weinberg goes on to confirm Sokal's position. "Those who seek extrascientific messages in what they think they understand about modern physics are digging dry wells. I think that, with two large exceptions, the results of research in physics (as opposed, say, to psychology) have no legitimate implications whatever for culture or politics or philosophy." Weinberg adds that until "we" learn the origins of the universe or the final laws of nature, philosophers and cultural theorists might avoid making statements about what they think "they" understand. Apparently, "we" is a set that does not include either of the latter two groups.
In a sentence that can only be read by any practicing physicist as dripping in irony, Sokal goes on to write that natural scientists "cling to the dogma" of the existence of an external world whose properties are independent of "humanity as a whole" since they are encoded in eternal physical laws. Humanity can obtain partial and imperfect knowledge of these laws through the objective procedures and structures supplied by the scientific method. From the perspective of the natural sciences, especially physics, it is quite possible that no truer words were ever written. From the perspective of contemporary philosophy and cultural theory, as well as associated fields such as science studies, there is little question that each of these statements is, at least, problematic. Even philosophers who do not espouse postmodern views would have been most likely taken aback, and some seriously offended, by the notion that culture or politics and even philosophy remain totally peripheral to the work of the natural sciences. The claim that research in physics holds no legitimate implications whatever for culture or politics or philosophy may also be deeply shocking because in spite of the often-heard claim that even the educated public knows little about science, these same theorists have often been deeply invested in the natural sciences. Philosophers, historians, and social scientists have linked changes in natural scientific methods and theories to changes in worldview, where the latter is defined as "a system of beliefs that are intertwined, interrelated, interconnected." These worldviews or systems of belief may be variously designated. Recent literature in the history and philosophy of science describes two overarching scientific worldviews, the Aristotelian and the Newtonian. The former incorporates numerous "mini" worldviews or systems: the Ptolemaic, the Copernican, the Tychonic, that of Kepler, and finally that of Galileo, which is strongly continuous with what came be the Newtonian worldview. The advent of the special and general theories of relativity and the development of quantum theory might be said to be part of an ongoing transition to yet another, still undefined worldview. Scientists and historians have also studied the pervasive influence of scientific theories such as evolution and thermodynamics, each of which seems to have impacted academic disciplines from philosophy to economics. So it can be shocking to philosophy and the social sciences when a theoretical physicist claims that philosophy, history, and sociology bear little relation to changes in the sciences and should avoid making claims based on their interpretation of those changes. Not surprisingly, it is precisely what have been called "radical claims in popular books," implying that "fundamental flaws have been found in the scientific worldview, and that one has to rethink the notion of law of nature," that have apparently aroused the fury of natural scientists.
It seems that the first question that looms over us is, specifically, the matter of this gap between the view of at least some physicists and that of philosophers and others. We noted above the position asserted by Sokal regarding natural scientists who maintain their belief in the existence of an external world whose properties are independent of humanity as a whole because they are encoded in eternal physical laws. This is an established position, already set out in the writings of Galileo, who contrasts natural science with law and humanities insofar as the former is not dependent on human judgment but acts in accordance with immutable laws, caring nothing for the limits of human understanding. Cultural theorists, against whom these arguments have been directed, have replied that it is intellectually incompetent to set up an opposition between truth and objectivity on the one hand, and nihilistic, relativistic constructionism (postmodernism) on the other. Nevertheless, as Barbara Epstein points out, there are strong and weak versions of postmodernism, and for the strong version, it is indeed the case that there is no "truth," because all perception of reality is mediated by discourse, which has no external standard by which to measure it. The effect of this position is that all claims to truth have equal status, leading to the conclusion that postmodernism is "relativistic." Ultimately, she argues, postmodern literature adopts an attitude of radical skepticism with respect to truth claims and objective reality. As we articulated this in the preface, postmodern formalism, modeled on mathematical formalism, equates truth with demonstrability, but formal languages cannot formulate their own notion of truth. Higher concepts of truth do not lie in a single proof but in the process of finding formulas for different problems in a conceptual becoming that has no end. With respect to the strong versions of formalist postmodern theory, it is not simply a matter of continually revising truth claims as knowledge changes and grows, but of maintaining an extreme social constructivism with respect not only to social and political positions, relations, and identities, but also with respect to epistemology itself.
Ironically, at least some of the impetus for the postmodern relativistic view may have come from the noted physicist Werner Heisenberg. To the dismay of more "measured" physicists, Heisenberg wrote that for quantum mechanics, it is no longer possible for physicists to speak about the behavior of particles independently of observing them, thus their objective existence in space and time is also called into question, and science therefore is not an objective observation of nature, but alters and refashions its objects of investigation. Even if a physicist were able to accept this loose account of quantum uncertainty (the theory that light acts as both a particle and a wave), it would be inappropriate as a characterization of certain methods universally utilized in physics. We cannot, for example, ignore the predictive power of differential equations.
In the 300 years since Newton, physicists have come to realize that the laws of physics are expressed in the language of differential equations. This is true for the equations governing the flow of heat, air and water; for the laws of electricity and magnetism; even for the unfamiliar and often counterintuitive atomic realm where quantum mechanics reigns. In all cases, the business of theoretical physics boils down to finding the right differential equations and solving them. When Newton discovered this key to the secrets of the universe, he felt it was so precious that he published it only as an anagram in Latin. Loosely translated, it reads: "It is useful to solve differential equations."
It is perhaps because such mathematical tools do exist and are universally acknowledged and utilized that Epstein claims that some theorists were uneasy about postmodernism from the start. The postmodern embrace of instability called for the dismantling of classical values even while allowing a new set of values to establish themselves, unacknowledged and without any critical scrutiny, a celebration of fragmentation without an accompanying search for coherence.
Although, as several critics have pointed out, postmodernism came to the United States via diverse routes, many of these different discourses found inspiration in the work of Michel Foucault. In Power/Knowledge in particular, Foucault makes a number of arguments advocating the ascendancy of subjugated knowledges, which, he claims, had introduced instability through discontinuous, particular, and local criticism but had been disqualified by the "inhibiting effect of global, totalitarian theories." Although most of the subjugated knowledges described by Foucault arise in relation to historical knowledge, local or regional knowledge, or experiential knowledge, this is quickly obscured by claims that such knowledges were policed in the name of "Truth" and "science," "an idea that is as arbitrary as any other," and that genealogies (knowledge of subjugated knowledge) are "antiscience." Although Foucault states that he does not advocate ignorance or deny the possibility of knowledge but merely wishes to oppose the more egregious effects of scientific discourse, nevertheless, since the claim that some knowledge is a science is for him a claim to power, and since he believes that the scientific hierarchy responds to genealogies with immediate co-option, recodification, and recolonization by what he calls "unitary discourses" such as science, then the task of genealogy is to expose what is at stake in the struggle against power that is nothing but the demand for a unitary discourse and power that invests scientific discourse. But in addition to scientific discourse, Foucault goes on to link power to the deployment of force in struggle, conflict, and war, thereby taking the struggle against the unitary power effects of scientific discourse out of the purely discursive realm and bringing it into the concrete, material world. Warfare is everywhere. There is no institution that is not at war and the war against science was declared.
Foucault's position appears to have been highly influential among social scientists. In tracing the responses to the Sokal essay from various postmodern intellectuals, Epstein cites in particular the argument of Bruce Robbins, one of the editors of the journal Social Text. Robbins argues that scientific "truth" had been utilized to oppress women, African Americans, gays, and lesbians, in other words that "the concept of truth is questionable on political grounds." As Epstein sees it, he is using the "truth" of postmodernism to combat the "truth" of science, a tangled web indeed. She agrees that some claims about these groups are not true, but she asks, does this mean that the concept of truth should be rejected or that we should merely reject false assertions? When Robbins goes on to make ad hominem attacks against theorists who supported Sokal (such as Katha Pollit, a feminist journalist, and Epstein herself, a professor of the history of consciousness, among others), we are left, she argues, with self-righteous posturing, striking poses that convey moral superiority, and "the sneer built into postmodernist discourse, a cooler-than-thou stance."
Robbins's position might be contrasted with that of Meera Nanda, a PhD in science and technology studies, a self-described "one-time biologist, science writer and partisan of science-for-the people movements," as well as author of Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodern Critiques of Science and the Hindu Nationalism in India. Like Epstein, Nanda argues that "strong programme" sociologists and epistemological relativists advocate a fundamental asymmetry at the core of their ideas. This is that statements of facts about nature are suspect as value-laden, even as social and cultural values are beyond rational criticism and reasoned change. Moreover, she wonders what the results of so-called interactionism in science might be, since it invites disregard for external consistency with the existing body of scientific knowledge, thereby weakening the goal of any shared, publicly recognized standards that would in fact keep subjective biases in check. Finally, she emphasizes that modern liberties, including feminism, came about only with the release of the natural from the dominance of the moral order.
Expressing concern over the assertion of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India that Hindu material science must have ultimate authority over what aspects of Western science and technology are allowed in schools, Nanda ventures into the defense of scientific realism. Her position is that "although not free from cultural biases, scientific reasoning does incrementally lead to knowledge that corresponds to the actual state of affairs in the world." This is of particular importance for those who have long been oppressed by so-called situated knowledges. In India, women, lower castes, and working people need transcultural truths that are capable of exposing and challenging the local knowledges under which they have suffered. She reminds us that in India, the popularization of science and the view of science as a tool of criticism against traditional authority had once played a prominent role in progressive politics. But students who are currently being taught nothing but the local mathematical knowledge–Vedic mathematics, for example–have limited tools, useful only for computation, rather than the more advanced conceptual tools of algebraic geometry that allow them to enter into the "real-world" mathematical problems they will encounter as scientists and engineers. This is perhaps equivalent to denying history students knowledge of current theories and worldwide historical events and sequestering them in family history and interpretations, while deriding any wider historical views. The problem with elevating subjugated knowledges, for Nanda, is that an account of knowledge that makes the standards of validity internal to culturally conditioned consensus cannot escape epistemological and judgmental relativism. Modern science, she argues, is not something to be deconstructed and overcome. Instead it must be utilized to play an active role in progressive political movements the alternative to which, she believes, is nothing less than religious fundamentalism.
Robbins's position might also be contrasted with that of Paul Boghossian, a philosopher of science from the analytic school of philosophy. Boghossian opposes what he calls "equal validity," that is, that there are many radically different yet equally valid ways of knowing the world, and that science is no more than one among them. Regarding the hoax, Boghossian makes at least one salient point, which is that Sokal "peppers his piece with as many smaller bits of transparent nonsense as could be made to fit on any given page," including claims that the mathematical constant "pi" is actually variable, that complex number theory is recent and speculative rather than well-established and dating back to the nineteenth century, and that quantum field theory confirms Lacan's theory of the neurotic subject. In the end, it is the unintelligibility of much of Sokal's text that leads Boghossian to the conclusion that the editors of Social Text simply do not understand the mathematical and physical ideas invoked. He cites Linda Nicholson, who in the introduction to her anthology Feminism and Postmodernism writes that the historicist claim that any inquiry is influenced by the values of the inquirer is indeed a very weak counter to the norm of objectivity. Thus it seems to Boghossian, to paraphrase Robbins above, that the concept of objectivity is being made questionable on political grounds and that if one wishes to question the norm of objectivity, it is better to let a presumed objectivist such as a physicist do it without questioning the values that he brings to the project. In their own defense, the editors of Social Text claimed that theirs is just a magazine that publishes unreviewed essays, but one wonders if they would have allowed publication of a text on, say, Foucault that blatantly misrepresented or distorted his views.
Excerpted from Postmodern Philosophy and the Scientific Turn by Dorothea E. Olkowski. Copyright © 2012 Dorothea E. Olkowski. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
Preface: Postmodern Philosophy
1. Nature Calls: Scientific Worldviews and the Sokal Hoax
2. The Natural Contract and the Archimedean World View
3. Semi-Free: Thermodynamics, Probability and the New Worldview
4. Burning Man: The Influence of Non-Equilibrium Thermodynamics and the Science of Flow
5. Philosophy’s Extra-scientific Messages
6. Love’s Ontology: Ethics Beyond the Limits of Classical Science
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This book is beautifully written, engaging throughout and captivating. . . . Authoritative and intelligent without being arrogant.
Dorothea E. Olkowski seeks to determine the limits of an ontology that derives its categories from the physics of deterministic chaos. She does so on the basis of an informed engagement with the history of modern physics. She goes on to develop an ethical framework based on phenomenological characteristics of the experience of the arrow of time.