Posts Tagged ‘Paul Feyerabend’

Sokal and Bricmont on the Harm Done to Developing Countries by Postmodernism

July 10, 2021

I’ve put up a number of articles recently attacking various forms of postmodernism, such as Critical Race Theory, for their radical rejection of Enlightenment values of rational debate and liberalism. In the case of Critical Race Theory, this has produced an ideology with definite Fascistic characteristics in its appeal to irrationalism, feelings and racial feeling against Western rationalism, which is held to be a form of enslavement when taken up by or foisted on Blacks. This is exactly like the Nazi denunciation of democracy as a Jewish plot to enslave Aryan Germans. Postmodernism is modern philosophy that explicitly preaches radical scepticism. It states that there is no such thing as objective fact and questions scientific objectivity with the claim that scientific theories are merely the product of particular historical events. It was developed by radical sociologists of science, such as the French scholar Bruno Latour, from the work of Willard Quine and Paul Feyerabend. Latour’s anti-scientific scepticism went so far as to question the death of one of the pharaohs from tuberculosis, as suggested by medical researchers in the ’70s. He did so, not because of any medical evidence suggesting another cause, but because tuberculosis was only identified as a specific disease in the 19th century. He stated that the disease only began when it was discovered by Koch, and so couldn’t have existed back in ancient Egypt to kill the pharaoh.

One of the first major attacks on Postmodernism was by the American mathematicians and physicist Alan Sokal and the Belgian philosopher Jean Bricmont. Sokal had kept a dossier of postmodernist papers which cited scientific and mathematical concepts and terminology, but were in fact utterly nonsensical. The two published a book based on these, Intellectual Impostures, which showed how these philosophers abused science and maths. Sometimes they had a vague notion what they were talking about, but the concepts cited were used loosely with no explanation why they were supposed to be relevant to what was supposed to be the subject of their papers, like psychoanalysis. In short, they were attempts by the postmodernists to make their arguments sound more impressive than they really were by couching them in incomprehensible prose and arbitrarily selected bits and pieces of science and maths.

They write that postmodernism is harmful in the Developed World, but the real damage is being done in the Developing World through the postmodernist demand for respect for indigenous traditions, even when they are exploitative, citing a left-wing Indian activist and scientist, Meera Nanda. They write

Unfortunately, postmodern ideas are not confined to European philosophy departments or American literature departments. It seems to us that they do the most harm in the Third World, where the majority of the world’s population live and where the supposedly ‘passe’ work of the Enlightenment is far from complete.

Meera Nanda, an Indian biochemist who used to work in the ‘Science for the People’ movements in India and who is now studying sociology of science in the United States, tells the following story about the traditional Vedic superstitions governing the construction of sacred buildings, which aim at maximizing ‘positive energy’. An Indian politician, who found himself in hot water, was advised that

‘his troubles would vanish if he entered his office from an east-facing gate. But on the east side of his office there was a slum through which his car could not pass. [So he] organized the slum to be demolished.’

Nanda observes, quite rightly, that

‘If the Indian left were as active in the people’s science movement as it used to be, it would have led an agitation not only against the demolition of people’s homes, but also against the superstition that was used to justify it… A left movement that was not so busy establishing ‘respect’ for non-Western knowledge would never have allowed the power-wielders to hid behind indigenous ‘experts’.

I tried out this case on my social constructionist friends here in the United States … [They told me] that seeing the two culturally bound descriptions of space at par with each other is progressive in itself, for then neither can claim to know the absolute truth, and thus tradition will lose its hold on people’s minds.

From Sokal and Bricmont, Intellectual Impostures (London: Profile Books 1998) 94-5.

Now, 23 years after that was written, the philosophical and moral relativists who demanded a completely uncritical respect for indigenous tradition are demanding that it should be incorporated into western science and culture in order to decolonise them. Thus we had the squalid spectacle of a video that appeared a little while ago of a debate in a South African university in which a Black student angrily claimed that western science was racist because it did not accept that African shamans could cause it to rain. The reason why science does not do so is because the supernatural is, by its nature, beyond and outside science’s purview.

But such radical postmodernism and attacks on science and rationality threaten the very foundations of civilisation and spread ignorance and prejudice, leading to the further impoverishment and exploitation of the very people the postmodernists claim to want to help.

Dawkins, ID and Forteanism

June 9, 2008

Looking through this month’s copy of the Fortean Times, a monthly dedicated to reporting the weird and bizarre, I was particularly struck by two letters to the magazine from readers defending Dawkins from criticisms made by two of the FT’s long-term columnists, Noel Rooney and The Hierophant’s Apprentice, and the columnists’ replies to the letters. What I found particularly remarkable about the comments of Dawkins supporters wasn’t their defence of Dawkins’ attacks on religion, but the fact that they found his views Fortean. The author of one of the letters stated that ‘I consider Dawkins to be most ably informed on the excesses of religion and the myth of belief and to be doing a particularly fortean job in exposing the fallacies of religions, the religious and the religious principle in all its forms’. 1Now there is some similarity between Dawkins’ views on the paranormal and the type of philosophical scepticism adopted and recommended by Charles Fort, the compiler and publisher of weird and scientifically inexplicable facts after whom the Fortean Times is named. Dawkins’ view that if the paranormal exists, then it is ‘perinormal’, that is, it is not totally outside science but will eventually become incorporated into a scientific paradigm when enough evidence is accumulated to allow this, is close to Fort’s own observations that previously damned data – facts ignored or denied by conventional science – may become accepted by science through a change in the scientific paradigm, or the Dominant as Fort himself termed it. Nevertheless, at the risk of slavishly defining Forteanism according to Fort’s own personal philosophy, something that Fort himself did not want and which Noel Rooney in his reply also criticises, there’s a big difference between Dawkins’ scepticism towards the supernatural and Forteanism.

Dawkins own scepticism is very much that of 19th century Positivism, which believed, following the theories of Auguste Comte, that religion and metaphysics had been superseded by science. Indeed the university chair Dawkins holds, that of Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, has a strongly Positivist tone, suggesting that there is a single, absolutely authoritative view of science about which the public must be informed, but must not question. This is not an ‘anti-science’ view. I recall one scientist, who certainly showed Dawkins’ concern for better communication of science, making the same arguments in an opinion article published in the ‘Forum’ column of New Scientist in the 1990s. Fort, on the other hand, while not religious, directed his scepticism very much at science and the claims of scientists who presented as objective fact a view of reality based not so much on evidence as on their own, personal beliefs, in defence of which they excluded and suppressed any scientific data that could not be fitted into it, or which actively appeared to contradict it. Fort’s Book of the Damned begins by stating this very clearly:

‘A procession of the damned.

By the damned, I mean the excluded.

We shall have a procession of data that science has excluded.’ 2

Fort’s scepticism, rather than being Positivist, appears to be closer to that of the ancient Greek Sceptics like Pyrrho and Heraclites. These ancient Greek Sceptics believed that reality was fundamentally unknowable, in that nothing definite could be said about it, and so argued for a complete detachment from belief. 3 The great Sceptical philosophers, Carneades, was notorious for being able to argue both for and against a given position with equal force. While he also considered that reality was fundamentally unknowable, he considered that some impressions were more persuasive than others, and more servicable through closer inspection and corroborating impressions. They were thus more credible, though not more certain. 4 Fort’s view that everything was in a state of intermediacy, and striving to become ‘more nearly real’ while gradually blurring into everything else, was also similar to the view of the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus that everything was in a state of flux, and that nature operated through the union of opposites, stating that ‘Combinations – wholes and not wholes, concurring differing, concordant discordant, from all things one and from one all things’. 5 Fort’s scepticism towards dogmatic science was also shared by the militantly atheist Nietzsche, who also considered reality to be a flux that was only imperfectly caught and described in the net of language, and declared that any view that claimed objective validity was a ‘shadow of God’ that oppressed humanity.

Alhtough they aren’t Sceptics, in many ways the adherents of Intelligent Design have a far more Fortean approach to science than Dawkins. As Intelligent Design, by suggesting that living creatures are the product of an intelligent designer rather than chance Natural Selection, is very much contrary to existing orthodox evolutionary science, its supporters are, like Fort, critical of the claims of scientists to proceed through the dispassionate evaluation of objective evidence. Philip Johnson, one of the leading proponents of Intelligent Design, has supported his arguments in this regard using the views of the physicist and philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend. Feyerabend, like Thomas Kuhn, considered that scientific progress largely consisted of the change of one set of self-consistent scientific concepts with another, only marginally based on the empirical evidence and not really constituting anything like progress in knowledge. 6 Although a controversial view, the history of science does provide examples of the way scientists have acted to suppress facts that do not support their current paradigm, and supporters of Intelligent Design have documented and publicised these incidents. For example, a recent post for the 26th May, ‘Can Science be Unbaised’, at the Intelligent Design site, The Design of Life, by Jane Harris Zsovan noted the intense controversy surrounding the views of Steven Shapin and Simon Shaffer in their book, Leviathan and the Air Pump. Examing the debate about the usefulness of experimental in constructing a true model of the world between Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes, Shapin and Shaffer concluded that scientists were no more objective in their view of the world than other people. In November 2007, Shapin and Shaffer in an edition of the Canadian TV science programme, Ideas, that after their book came out they suffered personal abuse and even threats of sacking from their colleagues, because of their rejection of the claim that science proceeds through complete objectivity. Thus, Denyse O’Leary, another leading supporter of Intelligent Design, has stated on her blog that ID is not the first or even the only scientific debate in which one side has been attacked and declared to be ‘anti-science’ by another.

Now this does not mean that Dawkins’ view of evolution is necessarily incorrect. It just means that in this instance, his view of science is less Fortean than that of the supporters of Intelligent Design, even though they aren’t sceptics like Fort himself. However, I do find interesting the recommendation of one of Dawkins’ defenders in their letter that Dawkins’ successor as Professor for the Public Understanding of Science should be invited to take part in the Fortean Times’ annual Unconvention and debate the motion ‘this house believes that all science undergraduates should be made to read Charles Fort’s The Book of the Damned’. 7 My guess is that they wouldn’t, especially if the similarity between Fort’s views appeared to support the wider philosophy of science expressed by Intelligent Design.

Notes

1. Philip Bolt, ‘Dissing Dawkins’, in Fortean Times, no. 237, (2008), p. 74.

2. X, ed., with introduction by Bob Rickard, Charles Fort’s Book of the Damned (London, John Brown Publishing 1995), p. 1.

3. ‘Scepticism’ in J. Speake, ed., A Dictionary of Philosophy (London, Pan Books 1979), p. 314.

4. ‘Scepticism’, in Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 314, and ‘Carneades’ in Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 56.

5. Aristotle, On the World, 396b7-8, 20-25, cited in Jonathan Barnes, Early Greek Philosophy (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1987), p. 114.

6. ‘Science, Philosophy of’, in Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 320.

7. ‘Dissing Dawkins’, Jason Mills, Fortean Times, no. 237, (2008, p. 74.