Why science critics shouldn’t be postmodernists (and vice versa)

by Dave Maier

BbNowadays the term “postmodernism” is synonymous with a certain sort of trendy, obscurantist philosophical nihilism, the self-consciously radical negation of solid common sense (“Words have no meanings!” “There is no truth!”). This is a shame, as it seems that one might very well criticize certain aspects of the modern era in an effort to move beyond. Indeed, to the extent that one sees the fundamental presuppositions of the modern era as both questionable (or at least past their sell-by date) and feasibly revisable or replaceable, one’s thought would thereby count as “postmodern” in a purely descriptive sense.

But words do indeed have meanings, and vox populi has spoken in this matter. Still, we are allowed to stretch out a bit if we think it helps. Here, for example, a neutral sense of the term helps make sense of my title. For if “postmodernism” is nonsense, then clearly no one should be postmodern. On the other hand, if it’s simply (potentially) unobjectionable philosophical criticism of modern dualisms, then why shouldn’t we be, science critic or not? A neutral term leaves open the latter possibility (thus necessitating an argument for my title claim) while reminding us that such things can easily go very badly wrong (not to mention hewing more closely to actual contemporary usage).

By “science critics” I mean a broad range of people, from sociologists of science to creationists, as well as the sort who gave “postmodernism” its bad name in the first place. Each is worried in their characteristic way about the dogmatism they perceive in science’s self-conception as the royal road to truth. Science is, they may claim, overly obsessed with objectivity, or with its own characteristic method, or with knowledge for its own sake, or with its epistemological status relative to other kinds of inquiry or other human activities more generally, or the metaphysical status of the laws or entities its theories are concerned with. In reply, critics may emphasize the essentially human (i.e., discursive, embedded, embodied, perspectival, etc.) nature of scientific activity as a corrective.

At this level of generality, any or all of these correctives might be appropriate. We cannot simply rule such judgments out of court from the beginning. Let’s let the critics make their case at least, lest we confirm the verdict of dogmatism right up front.

There doesn’t seem to me to be a problem, that is, with the very idea of “science studies.” Science is indeed, trivially, a human activity like any other. Humans are discursive creatures, and scientists must perforce use human concepts (what kind did you expect?). Similarly, it has a history, and the interactions of scientists, whether with each other or with others, cannot reasonably be exempted from the purview of sociology or the other social sciences, including semantics. Problems only arise when the issue is thought to be whether science is “only” or “merely” another kind of discourse, for this is where the rubber meets the road and sparks begin to fly.

As a pragmatist I am required – though surely others will want to join me here – to note that if your criticism of science cannot be made in terms of specific reforms of scientific practice, then I am not interested. And indeed there are plenty of science critics, e.g. feminists, who do not back away from this challenge, pointing to specific scientific studies or practices which violate their theoretical norms. We will not be evaluating such claims today (or ever actually). My point here is that it is very easy to see oneself as satisfying this requirement without actually doing so, or at least doing so in a defensible manner.

In other words, while I am perfectly happy to endorse the idea that scientific truths don’t mirror the metaphysical real (or however you want to put the metaphysical-realist fantasy), science itself never claimed that they do. Science doesn’t say “E = mc squared and this statement should be taken as representing the world in the sense posited by the philosophical theory of metaphysical realism”. (That’s the mistake realists make – why make it yourself?) It just says “E = mc squared.” Of course scientists make a big deal out of the scientific method and its ability to strip away subjective bias. But that’s just because of the particular sort of thing that science investigates, and the sort of thing we want to say about them: we constrict the former domain in order to be able to produce results with a certain sort of generality and/or stability (in step, for example, with their mathematization). That doesn’t make the realist concept of ideal metaphysical objectivity correct. And subjective bias can certainly interfere with proper scientific practice (think Lysenko here, for example) – why shouldn’t we try to strip it away?

Postmodernists may reply to this that even if this is true, scientists often defend their dogmatism in explicitly realistic terms, making it imperative that we combat the apparent philosophical error in order to make room for lower-level methodological critique. But scientists aren’t philosophers, and they’re not going to respond well to a philosophical critique of something they’re not necessarily committed to in the first place, especially if that isn’t our main concern (if it is, why pick on science? Why not just stay at the philosophical level?).

There are two main reasons why making this conflation messes things up. First, there’s no reason that philosophers concerned to battle metaphysical dualisms have to take science as a manifestation of philosophical error rather than as a methodological ally. Philosophers such as Peirce, Dewey, Brandom, Putnam, and Davidson, in their various ways, all make scientific rationality central to, or at least consistent with, a fully anti-Cartesian philosophy.

PutnamIn fact, pragmatist accounts of the overcoming of modern dualisms, such as Brandom’s and (on my reading) Davidson’s, simply do not work without proper place given to rationality as a norm, as something we rely on to seek truth and avoid error, or indeed make sense of the very idea of such things. They need not give science pride of place, but they certainly do not seek to diminish its importance, let alone to cast doubt on the truth of what it has discovered. It is to both sides of the metaphysical realist/antirealist controversy that they (we) must repeatedly point out that the fact that science is a human and thus discursive (interested, embedded, perspectival, etc.) activity does not mean that what science says is thereby not true (or justified, or objective, or whatever else). The question of whether to believe what science tells us is not a philosophical question at all, but is rather internal to scientific practice. That is, the only sorts of argument relevant to the question of whether [ – insert scientific question here – ] are scientific ones.

Science critics used to assimilating their criticisms to postmodern philosophy may see this as an unacceptable concession. But it is not. After all, their philosophical opponents are crying foul as well. Just as the fact that the deliverances of science are (e.g.) interested or perspectival doesn’t mean that they aren’t perfectly true, that they can be perfectly true doesn’t mean that they aren’t interested or perspectival. That is, the problem with postmodernism wasn’t that the dualisms they attacked were true after all; it was that in attacking them the way they did, they fell into (negative versions of) the same dualisms themselves. In other words, while it’s certainly possible that one may overvalue inquiry into, and knowledge of, the sorts of things science investigates, e.g. laws of nature and their mathematization, and that such overvaluing may indeed count as a philosophical error, it’s not that one.

The second point to make here is that dogmatism and/or objectivism in scientific practice is best met not by philosophical skepticism, but by countervailing forces within science. The realist/antirealist dialectic in philosophy is independent of, if also parallel to, a similar dialectic in science itself. The two are only to be identified if metaphysical realism is correct – which, again, scientific theorists may assume; but we need not follow them here. We may be used to scientists holding up empiricism as a characteristic virtue of science – and thus, perhaps, a reason to overvalue or misinterpret its results. But empiricism is a characteristically antirealist doctrine, holding for example that the point of scientific inquiry is not at all to mirror metaphysical reality with truths, but instead to “save the appearances” for purposes of prediction and control. Postmoderns who attack science for its “positivism” thus, ironically, miss an opportunity to make at least a fair-weather friend, or employ an enemy of its enemy, to help beat back the realist and dogmatist forces.

Reminiscent of the Kuhnian story about “normal science” and “revolutionary science” (a story which is itself independent of metaphysical concerns, if also often carelessly identified with them, by critics and defenders alike), the realist/instrumentalist dialectic within science goes like this. The progress of scientific discovery chugs along, discovering things about the world. After a while the discoveries outstrip our ability to make sense of them; yet we cannot reject them, as the results are robust. Instrumentalists then say, “who cares? We’re getting good results!” and (here’s the empiricist part) “just use the theory [e.g. of quantum spin matrices] to calculate with, that is, for prediction and control, the reason we’re doing science in the first place”. That works for a while; but then realists counter with “sure, the theory works; but what’s really happening? There aren’t little spin matrices out in nature! We want to know what’s really going on – that’s the reason we’re doing science in the first place.” And eventually someone comes up with an interpretation of the theory which seems acceptable (unlike the spin matrices) as a picture of reality, thereby nudging science further forward. And so it goes.

Again, though, this dialectic is part of science. Realist and anti-realist philosophers (in their own senses of these terms) may be looking on and cheering one side or the other, but really they shouldn’t. Yes, declarations that “we just want to save the appearances, not picture reality” on the one side, or “of course we’re trying to picture reality, because that’s what knowledge really is” on the other, grate. But the identification of the scientific and philosophical issues here is a (philosophical) mistake. The only methodological criticism scientists are obliged to listen to is internal to scientific practice, not that made from outside. This is the sense in which Wittgenstein says that “philosophy leaves everything as it is.” But that’s another story for another day.