Chomsky Forum Replies
bearing on the
Rationality / Post Modernism Topic


About postmodernism, etc.

On postmodernism, I don't know anything about the Web, and don't know what you saw of mine on postmodernism, so a little hard to comment. But just keeping to what you wrote, I suspect we may be talking about different things.

Running through your message, point by point.

On theory, I don't object to the fact that postmodernism has no theories (i.e., nothing that could sustain a non-trivial argument). No one else does either, when we turn to human affairs or the kinds of things they are discussing. What I object to is that they proudly claim otherwise. Their productions are put forth as "grand theory," too deep for ordinary mortals to understand -- at least for me: I don't understand it, and am skeptical about whether there is any "theory" to understand. That's a great technique for enhancing one's own privilege while marginalizing the slobs. Does it serve any other function? If so, what? Am I missing some of the great achievements? If so, what?

On the proof of Fermat's theorem, I have no independent judgment. Hence the word "apparently," which you picked up on quite accurately. I think we agree.

On Evelyn Fox Keller, I also find her work very interesting, but don't see any connection to post-modernism (at least, in what both of us find interesting about it).

As for it's being "a truism of our society that we're robots programmed by our DNA, which then interacts with the environment in such a complicated way that prediction tends to be impossible," and the failure of molecular biologists to prove this, I don't quite know what you mean. That what we do is the result of some complex interaction between our genetic endowment (which may not all be specified in DNA) and the course of experience -- that does seem to be close to truism. What else could play a role? God? That what we do is completely unpredictable is also true. There's been no progress since the Greeks on this, perhaps for quite fundamental reasons (I've written about this elsewhere, and won't repeat). But I don't see what this has to do with molecular biologists, still less with postmodernism.

Every biologist and other scientist I know of agrees with you that "it's a still a complete mystery how an organism grows out a zygote." For a recent example, take Hazen's article on unsolved problems of science in the current issue of "Technology Review." I think you are pushing an open door on this one, and it has nothing to do with postmodernism.

You write that "it's good that biologists have actually rejected the "master molecule" talk you still read about in glowing articles in Scientific American about the latest gene which controls trait X, but where the cybernetic craziness the biologists have gone into might be worse -- they've developed an obfuscatory language which allows them to think in same robotic metaphors."

I don't recognize this from what I read in biology. There is a lot of fascinating work on "master" regulatory genes that seem to appear throughout organic forms, determining the development of body forms, eyes, etc., everywhere. If that's what you are referring to, it seems to be very enlightening and important. If something else, can't comment. But either way, I don't see the connection to postmodernism.

Ruth Hubbard's work is also interesting. But I don't see the connection to postmodernism, or to serious biological science. On everything being a machine, surely no scientist should have believed this since Newton refuted the "mechanical philosophy" -- that is, the belief that the inorganic world is a machine -- outraging the scientific establishment (Huygens, Leibniz, Bernoulli, etc.) and himself as well, since he regarded this conclusion as absurd, and sought (vainly) to refute it for the rest of his life, as did Euler, D'Alembert, and other major figures of the 18th century -- and beyond; these efforts underlie the various ether theories. But by this century, Newton's demonstration that NOTHING is a machine has been almost universally accepted among scientists. So again, I don't see what the issue is. Or any connection to postmodernism (which, I admit, I don't understand).

On Descartes's "ghost in the machine," that notion made sense in the time of Descartes, and was indeed straight, normal science. But the concept collapsed when Newton exorcised the machine (leaving the ghost intact). There's been a lot of confusion about this since, and maybe postmodernism contributes more confusion (not understanding it, I can't say). But the basic facts seem to me clear enough. I'm unaware of any contribution to these matters by "ecofeminists," but that could well be my ignorance, or inability to understand postmodernist literature.

Like Keller, I think quite highly of Stuart Kauffman's work, which is about as remote from postmodernism as I can imagine. I don't agree that it is trivial. And I don't read him as claiming that the problem of life is now solved. Rather, that by looking at (quite nontrivial) properties of complex systems, we might be able to get a handle on these mysteries. Sounds reasonable to me.

I quite agree with you about the serious problems of "ecocrisis." They are not, however, the result of "technology," but of the institutional structures in which technology is used. A hammer can be used to smash someone's skull in, or to build a house. The hammer doesn't care. Technology is typically neutral; social institutions are not. To the (very limited) extent that I understand what is written about these matters in the literature you are referring to, it seems to attribute to technology what should be attributed to institutions of power and privilege, and thus serves to protect these institutions, by shifting attention away from them. I've often suspected that this service to power and privilege may help account for the warm reception given to these doctrines in the ideological institutions (universities, etc.).

On my comments about how the left intellectuals who used to try to bring understanding of science and mathematics to the general public are now working hard to ensure that these marvellous achievements are reserved for the rich and powerful, you write: "I'd be happy to teach Mathematics to millions myself, I think my subject is overly obfuscatory in an effort to insulate itself from the scrutiny of ordinary people. But I really think what you were complaining about on this topic has to do with a loss of faith in Science, for instance by leftists. I think Science has a lot of problems, rooted in the 1000 year Catholic domination of Europe."

For what it's worth, here's my reaction.

I think it's great that you, and others, should teach mathematics to millions, and I think this can be done in a way that is not "overly obfuscatory" -- say, the way Vicky Weisskopf presents advanced physics, readily accessible to high school students. But I'm not "complaining" about anything, surely not what you say. Rather I'm deploring the fact that while people who considered themselves left intellectuals 60 years ago were devoting themselves to the needs and interests of the great mass of the population (for example, by introducing them to modern science and mathematics), many of those who call themselves "left intellectuals" today prefer to feather their own nests while telling the general public that they should not pay attention to what human intelligence and creativity has achieved, but should leave all of this to the powerful and privileged and join the postmodernists in what (to me, at least) is incomprehensible jargon. All of this is a marvellous gift to power, and much to be deplored, in my opinion.

I could well be wrong. I'm quite open-minded about this. I'll be convinced as soon as someone explains to me some of the new insights that have been achieved. So far, what I read in these domains seems to me either near truism, long accepted, or absurd, incomprehensible, or "obfuscatory" (to borrow your term). Good for careers, and a real service to power. But I don't see any other function.

On the problems of science, as actually practised, doubtless there are many, but I don't see that we gain any understanding of these matters from these sources. Rather, just mountains of confusion and misunderstanding. Not that everything is wrong. What little I understand is often true: e.g., the anti-foundationalism, not only true, but truism, and for hundreds of years. That seems to me the problem: either truism, or unintelligible. To be fair, I'm exaggerating. When one peels away the polysyllabic rhetoric, there are often some good ideas, which could be stated quite simply, I think. If so, why not? Nerits thought, it seems to me.


On Rorty, relativism, etc.

I don't think this is the place or occasion to go into a detailed discussion of Rorty's book, so I'll keep to your formulation of the issue raised:

(1) "There is no objective point of reference (God's eye view, as R says) from which we can make a universal judgment (or even rational judgment, i.e., it is still peppered with our own ethnocentric conceptions of what we consider rational) regarding the retention or dismissal of that value -- accept on pragmatic grounds, e.g., usefulness to the community."

(2) "any type of conceptual scheme that is constructed (including rules of rationality) is always going to be relative to the ethnocentric aspect of the particular culture in which we

are living, which may be completely different from another culture."

First, we have to distinguish "rules of rationality" from empirical inquiry (science, history, ordinary life,...).

Take the former. Does the proposal assert that there are cultures in which people believe that it is fine to accept outright contradictions? So, putting aside irrelevant questions about vagueness, etc., is it proposed that there are human societies where people who see two apples in one place and two apples in another place happily accept the conclusion that there are both 4 apples and 93 apples in these two places? Or peasant societies where people decide to plant on the assumption that

right now it is both raining hard and not raining at all? Or people who adopt our calendar and are quite happy with the conclusion that today is Saturday and not Saturday (maybe Thursday)? Or where they believe that (a) the sun is shining, (b) if the sun is shining it's hot, and (c) it's not hot? Or people whose "rules of rationality" are that if p is true then p is false and its negation is true?

If so, it would be interesting to have some examples cited, or even an abstract account of what belief systems would be like under such circumstances.

There surely are questions that can be raised (and have been, by Putnam, who you mention, in particular). For example, for quantum mechanics, should we adopt 2-valued or higher-valued logic? Should we accept the axiom of choice (in set theory)?

Etc. But these questions are raised within our structure of rationality (which, as far as is known, is everyone's, a species character).

Take the second possibility: what is in question is science and other forms of empirical inquiry. But here there has been little serious disagreement since the 17th century. Within our scientific tradition (the one that is supposed to fail to recognize its ethnocentricity) it's been rather widely agreed that experience itself is determined by modes of cognition (partly innate, partly modified by experience), and that there can be no firm and certain foundations for the conclusions of science. Here we move to questions of textual interpretation, but I think if you look, you'll find that while debates about these matters have a good deal of intellectual interest, they are based on largely shared ground that is not subject to the kind of critique to which you refer (even if one can give a coherent version of that critique, which does not seem easy to me).

Specifically, it is commonly assumed (in the modern period, in a spectrum ranging from Carnap to Quine, for example) that the framework for scientific inquiry is adopted on "pragmatic grounds." But by "pragmatic grounds," no one means "usefulness to the community." Suppose, for example, we conclude that it would be useful to the community if drivers would stay below 60mph, and we could get them to do so by convincing them that if they go above 60, they'll get incurable cancer, or Earth will be hit by a huge asteroid, or they'll go to Hell. Do you know anyone -- in this culture, or any other culture -- who would conclude that it is therefore true that they'll get incurable cancer, etc.?

Doubtless it would be useful to the community if global warming could be controlled by prayer. Do you know anyone who concludes, on these grounds, that it is true that global warming can be controlled by prayer?

You raise the question: "is there any foundation upon which we can retain the rules of rational thinking, etc., that would by-pass such relativism?" The question seems to me unanswerable, until some coherent version is proposed of the kind of "relativism" we are supposed to by-pass. In what I've read of the "postmodern writers," I've seen no hint of that, though I should make clear that I have read very little, for reasons I've probably already mentioned.


On critical realism, postmodernism, etc.

I have some sympathy for (what I understand of) critical realism, but without getting into what they write and may mean, let's keep to your rendition of it, to avoid textual questions: "that Postmodernism and Positivism are two sides of the same coin, as both assume that science ultimately aspires to perfect knowledge of the universe (the PoMo position being that since this is impossible, knowledge, or science, or reality itself, is impossible.)"

We need not consider "the PoMo position" because positivism doesn't hold any such view -- at least, if by positivism we have in mind the people who called themselves "positivists" -- say, the Vienna circle. Since the skeptical crisis of the 17th century, it would be hard to find anyone who thinks that science could attain "perfect knowledge," or who would even understand the phrase. What does it mean? Certainty? That's flatly excluded for the empirical sciences, uncontroversially. Something else? What?

There may be people who believe something like what is attributed to "positivism," but it's unfair to tar positivism with that brush.

For such reasons, I don't really understand critical realism, except insofar as it reiterates what seems to me to have been scientific/philosophical common understanding for centuries.

As for questions like "how can I know X exists?," it's true that people use such phrases, but they don't mean "certain knowledge." The answer to the question "how can I know that Helium exists" is supposed to be that our best theories postulate its existence.

But that falls far short of "knowledge" in the technical sense that presupposes truth. Our best efforts to gain theoretical knowledge are just that: efforts. That's commonly taken for granted.

I don't know of any "tiresome dilemmas about reality" that are resolved "if we just get used to the idea that our knowledge of it will always be somewhat limited, and certainly never absolutely predictive." That's basically taken for granted, so the dilemmas don't arise.

I don't, frankly, see the way from these ideas (truisms, in my view) to radical politics, except insofar as we can show that being rational leads to radical conclusions.

I haven't been able to comprehend the defenses of "Chomskyan linguistics" that you mention, in part because there is no such thing. Typically, I don't believe what I believed yesterday (maybe because some grad student stopped by to discuss new ideas, which look convincing -- or because I had a sleepless night and worked on some confusing problems). So what's "Chomskyan linguistics"? If the phrase refers to the basic point of view shared by many people working in these areas, it shouldn't be personalized (by my name, or anyone else's). That aside, I'm not aware that the basic point of view needs the sort of defense to which you refer. Defense against what criticism? There are doubtless criticisms (people within "Chomskyan linguistics" are making them all the time). But the ones that are "refuted" don't seem to me to merit discussion. Could be that I'm missing something important. If so, I'd like to find out about it; always eager to learn.

Noam Chomsky