Postmodernism and Science

Quote from an article “Decline and Fall” by Shawn Lawrence Otto in the New Scientist 29 October 2011 about the rise of anti-science and unreason in US politics.

 ……… Postmodernism emerged, drawing on cultural anthropology and relativity to argue that there was no such thing as objective truth. Science was simply the cultural expression of western white men and had no greater claim to the truth than the ‘truths” of women and minorities. This fit well with the politics of civil rights and also conveniently placed the humanities back on top. In pop culture it became a secular religious movement that preached creating your own reality —the New Age.

Many positive things came out of postmodernism but the idea that there is no objective truth is just plain wrong. And yet a generation of Americans was taught this incorrect idea. As they became leaders in politics, industry and the media this thinking affected their regard for truth and science. Without objective truth, all arguments become rhetorical. We are either paralysed in endless debate or we must resort to brute authority. This is the abyss the US now faces.

It seems to me that the ideas of postmodernism are being used, wrongly, to give comfort to climate deniers, which is potentially dangerous to all of us.

The problem seems to be a sort of double bind: You cannot deny that “postmodernism applies to everything” because that denial is itself “just one more view” to which postmodernism applies.

I suggest that useful aim to this discussion would be to attempt to clarify the limits of postmodernism in terms convincing to die-hard postmodernists.

My take on all this is as follows:

Data and Meaning

Data is something “Out there” which we share and is the same for everyone. For example, you and I (and a computer) can read the same piece of text. When I bring this text into my mind, I clothe it with “Meaning”, by which I mean what comes up in my mind when I perceive and think about that particular piece of data.

In my mind the Meanings of different things are all linked together to make my personal Meanings Universe, a hugely complex thing. My Meanings Universe exists only in my mind and my interpretation this piece of data is uniquely dependent on the extent and nature of my Meanings Universe.

When you do the same, you do so in terms of your Meanings Universe, which is completely different to mine. Our full interpretations will never be the same.

Everybody’s Meaning universes is different and will differ more with culture, age, education and gender.

A Meaning is not the same as a definition; If, for example, the data includes the word “tree”, and you ask me what a tree is, I would try and define it or refer you to the definition in a dictionary. If you ask what tree means to me what comes into my mind is a collection of images, definitions and connections which, if I tried to describe, would come out as a disjointed stream of consciousness: memories of trees that I have climbed, fallen out of, picked fruit from, cut down made things out of. Trees I have read about, tree as a metaphor etc. This would be much more than a definition but only a feeble precis of what is actually in my mind.

(Is having a Meanings Universe is an essential aspect of being conscious?)

If a number of people are asked about a particular poem they will give a variety of answers. Each response depends on how the words of the poem becomes part of each persons Meanings Universe.

However there are other data topics, such as mathematics, where particular questions are expected to produce the same answer. Note that each individual has to understand this using their own Meanings but these will either “work”, and give the right answer or not, in which case we say that the individual does not understand. We do not say that they have a valid alternative understanding. 

So we have two distinct types of data: the poem is essentially about the unique Meanings in the poet’s mind; and maths, which is about statements that are not dependent on any particular persons Meanings. I suggest that “postmodernist type” thinking is only applicable to the former and “Rational Type” thinking is only applicable to the latter.

Furthermore I suggest that the inverse is true:  “postmodernist type” thinking is not applicable to maths and if  I am applying “Rational type” thinking to poetry, I have probably missed the point!

Science is a body of data accumulated from many individual observation of the world “out there” from which, as far as possible, content referring to any particular individual’s Meanings is excluded. I suggest that, like maths, “Rational Type” thinking is applicable and “postmodernist type” thinking is not.

With my science/engineering background this seems obvious, but how can we explain it in terms that postmodernists can understand?

Science and meaning

My perspective (coming from a background in science and technology) is that “The human being knows not the world-in-itself but rather the world-as-rendered-by-the-human-mind.”  is right and indeed, we should go further and add that the “world-as-rendered-by-the-human-mind.” is different in every mind and that human culture is to do with the dealing with the world that is the sum of all the worlds-as-rendered-by-every-human-mind. A messy business!

Science is an enterprise which attempts to probe “the world-in-itself” and create documents (“texts”) with the minimum dependence on the Meanings from any one mind. However every person reading these documents will create a Meaning that is part of their world-as-rendered-by-their-own-mind, which is different to every one elses.

Thus scientist A observes some aspect of the world-out-there, forms a Meaning in her mind and reports her interpretation, usually by writing a paper. Scientist B reads this paper, forms a Meaning in his mind and repeats the observation and in the process checks that the Meaning in his mind is consistent with that in scientist A’s. The paper can only become part of Science if anyone, from any background, is able to do repeat this check.

Here is an observation that can be repeated:

Vinegar added to beetroot juice turns red. Washing soda or ammonia added to beetroot juice turns it blue.

Anybody can be a scientist, just try this and check that you get the same result.

It works regardless of culture, religion or location.

There is no “alternative science” in which washing soda does not turn beetroot juice blue.

Dialogue, by which I mean all intercourse between humans, can never result in total agreement. only a degree of convergence.

We should never look to science for total agreement in dialogue. Although it represents our best grasp of “the world-in-itself”, dialogue can only be conducted with versions of “world-as-rendered-by-the-human-mind.”

Importantly, we should not look to science as a source of moral or other values. Although it can have a role in informing them.

Science will contain errors, but these errors can in principle be corrected.

Science, as a provider of value-free conclusions, is unique and cannot be regarded as “just another text”. However once these conclusions have been combined with Meanings and become part of a dialogue, this uniqueness is lost.

In the world of dialogue, degrees of agreement can be significant. Thus, a large group of people may hold that a particular action is bad. This can change the view of other people and become the accepted view.

In contrast what science tells us will be the same regardless of how many people believe otherwise. Acceptance of a view is irrelevant,

I think we must assume that there is only one world-out-there. So there can be only one science. However the extent of the world-out-there is unknown and probably much, much greater than has been probed by the science enterprise so far. Historical accident has determined which aspects  have been probed.

Recent studies of the process of perception and the development of machine recognition both indicate that identifying even the simplest object needs an extensive pre-existing knowledge of the object. Also that only the few aspects of that object that the person is prepared for are perceived while other seemingly major aspects are simply not seen.

For example, science tells us that hydrogen cyanide is very toxic. It does not put any moral value, positive or negative on it. That comes from the mind of the user. Thus to a Hitler this makes it cheap and useful as a weapon and in extermination camps. For someone who wants to exploit its very useful properties, it is inconvenient.

The important point here is that the science only tells us that “This action has this result”. The values involved here are important but they are the creation of the human mind. They can be modified in the light of the science. They do not come from science.

Further we can identify patterns. Vinegar can be replaced by any acid and washing soda by any alkali. Also we find that there are many purple coloured juices from vegetables do the same. Try red cabbage, red wine, blackcurrant juice and an extract of certain lichens called litmus.

One could go on!