On September 23rd, Gad Saad posted the following challenge to postmodernists;
Important challenge to all postmodernists. Please respond. pic.twitter.com/YiJrb3QQwp
— Gad Saad (@GadSaad) September 24, 2017
Although I’m not a postmodernist (nor am I supportive of the philosophy and the various ideologies it has spawned), this seems like an interesting thought experiment. So, I figured I’d take a devil’s advocate position and attempt to provide a few examples of how postmodernism has improved our understanding of the world.
Disclaimer: I’m not a fan of postmodernism; this site is dedicated to educating people about how to spot postmodernism, as well as finding and documenting ways to curb its influence in postsecondary education and elsewhere.
That said, it should be obvious to everyone reading that there is something compelling about postmodernism, seeing as it has almost completely taken over the humanities and social sciences.
After spending some time studying several foundational texts and additional works that they’ve inspired, I’ve come to the conclusion that even through postmodernism is almost entirely nonsense, there are some nuggets of truth hidden in the refuse. I suspect that an understanding of these arguments might be valuable when discussing such issues with postmodernists.
As the saying goes, “seek to understand before being understood”. Even when talking with social justice activists.
Devil’s Advocacy Pt. 1: A Postmodernist Criticism of Science
Here’s a summary of the strongest possible anti-science argument I can construct;
- The obsession with “objective truth” is a product of Western European civilization, which came about during the so-called “Enlightenment”.
- While the “Enlightened” western world was championing concepts like truth and liberty, they were busy slaughtering and enslaving entire civilizations around the world. Scientific concepts like Darwinism were often used to justify such dominance.
- Ever since then, things like “science” and “truth” have been used as tools to justify oppression of minorities.
- Such “scientific” truths were only revised when marginalized groups rose up to protest their dehumanization. The Stonewall riots, early Pride parades, and the modern Trans rights movements are a testament to the importance of lived experience over scientific “fact”.
- Thus, people who cling to things like science and truth are probably just bigots using “science” to justify and defend their privileged and exclusionary way of life.
Science has been wrong before about many issues, is currently wrong about many more, and will be wrong again
Science has been wrong about many things. There’s a long list of superseded scientific theories on Wikipedia, but here are some of the most ridiculous “scientific” concepts;
- Phrenology: As portrayed quite excellently in Django Unchained, phrenology was an accepted scientific discipline in the 1800’s where the shapes and contours of the skull were believed to impart knowledge about mental faculties. Of course, different races have differently-shaped skulls, which allowed “scientists” to denote certain races as less intelligent (and therefore inferior to Europeans).
- Eugenics: Selective human breeding, leading to many instances of compulsory sterilization around the world. Great job, science.
- Female Hysteria: Hysteria of both men and women was widely discussed in the medical literature of the 19th century. Women considered to have had it exhibited a wide array of symptoms, including faintness, nervousness, sexual desire, insomnia, fluid retention, heaviness in the abdomen, shortness of breath, irritability, loss of appetite for food or sex, and a “tendency to cause trouble”. (Source: Wikipedia)
Regarding parallels between homosexual & trans rights: In a world where many public figures are now openly gay, many people might be shocked to learn that homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder in the DSM until 1973, and by the World Health Organization until 1992.
Therefore, the “science” of sexuality and gender is not a reflection of “objective” facts, but rather of social norms and societal attitudes. Just like “diagnoses” of homosexuality, the DSM has already softened its stance on transgender people, likely only because of public pressure from trans activists.
Science is primarily a political tool
Besides being wrong about many issues, “science” and “facts” are tools used by corrupt politicians, thought leaders, celebrities, and greedy business leaders to advance their own agendas. For years, the tobacco industry has employed “scientists” and fabricated studies to downplay the health risks of smoking. The sugar industry has done the same, as has the oil industry.
One of the darlings of conservatism in North America, Ben Shapiro, exemplifies this type of behavior. He routinely claims that transgendered people are “delusional”. Not only is he incorrect from a scientific standpoint (transgendered people are not delusional by the clinical definition of the word), he cherrypicks scientific “evidence” to support his claims, despite mountains of evidence to suggest he is wrong. Yet he sticks to a chromosome-based argument to appeal to a largely uneducated and bigoted fan base.
Therefore, not only is “objective science” merely a reflection of societal opinions, it is also fabricated by those with power and resources to gain more power at the expense of public health, the environment, and marginalized groups. Those who hide behind “science” are worshiping a false idol and holding back progress based on genuine lived experience.
The major flaw in this anti-science argument
Without going too much into detail, I believe that science manifests as three different things; a tool, a process, and an industry. In order to effectively criticize or defend science, one must be clear about which aspects are being criticized and/or defended. For example, one can defend the Scientific Method (science-as-process) while criticizing how research is funded and disseminated (science-as-industry).
Devil’s Advocacy Pt. 2: Questioning the grand “Western Narrative”
Essentially, postmodernism asks the following question: “What’s so great about Western civilization, anyway?”. The fact that Western civilization has struggled for decades to come up with a sufficiently compelling answer shows that this is a great question to ask.
The failings and missteps of Western European countries and their colonies-turned-countries are easy to find, and I won’t waste time listing them here. However, needless to say, postmodernism’s critical eye on our society has at least contributed to the momentum of some movements that have reformed “Enlightened” civilization for the better; women’s rights, Indigenous reconciliation, racial equality, and so on.
Devil’s Advocacy Pt. 3: Jean-François Lyotard’s observations on the knowledge economy are remarkably astute
Some selected quotes from an early chapter of The Postmodern Condition, written in 1979:
Lyotard on the effect of computers on information:
It is reasonable to suppose that the proliferation of information-processing machines is having, and will continue to have, as much of an effect on the circulation of learning as did advancements in human circulation (transportation systems) and later, in the circulation of sounds and visual images (the media).
When reading this passage, I think of our clickbait-based media & journalism:
The relationship of the suppliers and users of knowledge to the knowledge they supply and use is now tending, and will increasingly tend, to assume the form already taken by the relationship of commodity producers and consumers to the commodities they produce and consume – that is, the form of value. Knowledge is and will be produce in order to be sold, it is and will be consumed in order to valorized in a new production: in both cases, the goal is exchange.
Think China, the NSA, net neutrality, big data, digital censorship, and so on:
Knowledge in the form of an informational commodity indispensable to productive power is already, and will continue to be, a major – perhaps the major – stake in the worldwide competition for power. It is conceivable that the nation-states will one day fight for control of information, just as they battled in the past for control over territory, and afterwards for control of access to and exploitation of raw materials and cheap labor. A new field is opened for industrial and commercial strategies on the one hand, and political and military strategies on the other.
Honorable Mention: Richard Rorty
Out of the four philosophers who spawned postmodernism (Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, and Richard Rorty), Rorty seems to receive the least amount of criticism. Whereas Foucault and Derrida are obscurantist and hard to digest (much less understand), Richard Rorty’s works (particularly Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity) is quite reasonable and easy-to-read by comparison. I’m sure if I had time, I could go through and pull some passages from C,I,&S that would contain some novel thinking.