[eDebate] positivistic science-worship

Kevin Sanchez let_the_american_empire_burn
Mon Apr 28 14:02:31 CDT 2008

in reply to, http://www.ndtceda.com/pipermail/edebate/2008-April/075030.html

korcok suggests that merely calling science a 'discourse'
implies a "postmodern criticism" of science,
and further suggests that anything that's called a discourse
is thereby open to the likes of 'literary analysis'.
i'm under the impression that even when postmodernists loosely
throw about the term discourse, they at the very least mean
a functional system of representations or practices.
when kuhn wrote about 'paradigms', was he also guilty
of "postmodern criticism"? is any evaluation of the history
of science, by definition, anti-scientific? ...i think not.
there's a distinction you're overlooking here between
considering whether the discourse (or subject-matter)
of natural selection/evolution is correct (which would,
you're right to point out, require a minimal competence
in evolutionary biology) and considering *the correct place*
such a discourse should occupy in our society.
this latter consideration is one that all rational members
of a community are capable of lending a helping hand to.
the sheer fact that scientists inform us of anthropocentric
climate change, for instance, doesn't automatically lead to
irrefutable conclusions about the best way to deal with it.
the economist has their say, as does the religious believer,
as do john and jane q. public. now, this isn't to suggest that
the conclusions we reach won't end up being damn obvious (...and,
in this example, they indeed are), but it simply means that
the role science plays in our lives isn't a role science alone
can define for us.
so, when someone holding a biology textbook tells us
that evolution justifies laissez-faire capitalism (as
per some 'survival of the fittest'-argument), one doesn't
have to be deeply studied in evolutionary biology to
call bullshit. and if that's true of laissez-faire capitalism,
it's also true of hackneyed notions of 'the progress of Man'.
you don't have to be a scientist to critique scientism. 

...in any case, that's how i read meagher's comments, and it
turns out i was correct.

why you read his comments differently may have less to do
with their content than with their jargon. a lot of the trouble
with getting anything labeled 'postmodern' a fair hearing is
that the jurors come to the court with a great many preconceptions.

yes, the lame response to the sokal publication certainty
revealed a "vacuity", and certainly exposed a lot of posers.
but whether an idea is sound doesn't depend on whether some sect
of academia is up to defending it. '100 authors against einstein'
couldn't defeat the truth of relativity, and a single satire can't
defeat ideas as diverse as metaphysical anti-realism and social
many of the discoveries and theories to come out of quantum
mechanics provoke warranted skepticism in the founding notions
of metaphysics and epistemology - the notion of 'substance', for
an example. and if a genuine physicist had something similar to
say about gravity, i'd want to read about it. but we shouldn't
be surprised that, on a bad day, professors can't discern sincere
versus insincere or legitimate versus illegitimate explorations
of this skepticism.
sokal wrote what a board of postmodernists wanted to hear, and
sokal didn't himself believe what he was writing. neither of these
two statements mean that those who may sympathize with some of
what sokal wrote are necessarily wrong to be skeptical. if a
mathematician claimed to solve fermat's last theorem, for example,
and some journal published an incorrect proof too hastily, we'd
rightly criticize that journal for insufficient peer review, but
it'd also do us well to recall there's value in studying incorrect
proofs. sometimes there IS a wolf around even when a liar screams.

from what i've read, sokal appears to assume that the working
methodologies of the physical sciences should obtain for all
philosophical inquiry. i'd say this rings of positivism, as if
russell succeeded in his logical atomism, but really, i think
sokal doesn't take into serious account any philosopher since kant
(and including kant).

let's take this interview with hilary putnam to demonstrate:

a little after minute 7, they begin discussing the correspondence
theory of truth. the kantian 'contribution of the thinking mind'
seems to me something sokal would dismiss as 'postmodern garbage',
and if a continental philosopher had given the examples putnam
provides (of visual interpretedness, of medieval world-view),
he'd probably have made the pages of 'fashionable nonsense'.

but since it's true i've not taken any polls of philosophers,
either analytical or continental, i'll retract what korcok labels
a "rhetorical bluff" and substitute the following two claims:

(1) correspondence theory is one among many competing theories
of truth - namely, coherence, pragmatist, deflationary, etc.

(2) correspondence theories are far from obvious in the field
of philosophy, and not particularly dominant either.

neither of these seems known to sokal, who talks as if 
scientific truths are true by virtue of their corresponding
to external reality, and anyone who thinks differently is an
absolute loon.

that may be the way most people feel as well, but it's the
very nature of philosophy to have it out with common-sense,
intuitive notions - e.g., the chuchlands' crusade against
'folk psychology'.

if you wanted to defend the scientific method from contemporary
opponents, why not begin with feyerabend's 'against method',
instead of, say, foucault's 'the order of things'?
the former is an open call for theoretical anarchism, whereas
the latter author is a strict methodological empiricist.}

so i see a double-standard, and what interests me is how most of
the developments in analytical philosophy, which sokal never gets
around to, have parallels in continental philosophy. when derrida
says there's no outside-text, he's not saying anything more than
when wittgenstein says we're always operating within a language
game; when derrida points to the deferral and dispersion of meaning,
he's not saying anything more than donald davidson already does in
terms of semantic holism: is it derrida's avoidance of a dry, more
technical style that's on trial?

and when a big-name analytical philosopher like robert nozick
drops a stinker like 'invariances', which invalidly uses quantum
mechanics and is grossly ignorant of many of the most important
theories in that field, where was sokal? did he even comment upon
that book in print?

it makes one wonder if sokal's problem is with the ideas
or with the people who espouse them; and if it's not the ideas,
then perhaps the charge of academic posturing needs to be extended
beyond its traditional targets.

...but i digress, here as elsewhere,

oh and the subject-line steals a phrase from richard rorty.

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