Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Postmodernists, relativists, to save the world

We hear a lot about the big challenges we’re up against. There are now over seven billion people on earth. Cheaply extractable fuel is running out. The effects of burning all that carbon-based fuel are transforming the climate, which will compromise agricultural production just when our need for food at its greatest. Other vital materials are becoming scarce. Our own medical science is helping to cultivate pathogens resistant to our most powerful drugs. We have our work cut out.

Or do we?

What if these so-called ‘challenges’ were no more than one way of looking at the world. What if science was just ‘one kind of knowledge’ along with others, and the others were equally valid? In that case, maybe everything would be just fine.

The great postmodern hope

It is not clear that any of the millions of ways of describing this
picture of a bit of space-time occupied by what we call a Richard
Rorty is closer to the way things are in and of themselves than
any of the others.
Postmodernists, social constructivists and relativists have been saying, for some time, that there are no facts independent of human construction.

So, there aren’t really giraffes, independent of our deciding to talk about the world in a certain way. That, at least, is Richard Rorty’s view:

More generally, it is not clear that any of the millions of ways of describing the bit of space time occupied by what we call a giraffe is closer to the way things are in and of themselves than any of the others.” (Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope (New York: Penguin, 1999), p. xxvi.)

This doesn’t just apply to giraffes. According to constructivists, it holds pretty generally. Here’s Nelson Goodman:

Now as we thus make constellations by picking out and putting together certain stars rather than others, so we make stars by drawing certain boundaries rather than others. Nothing dictates whether the skies shall be marked off into constellations or other objects. We have to make what we find, be it the Great Dipper, Sirius, food, fuel, or a stereo system.” (Nelson Goodman, ‘‘Notes on the Well-Made World,’’ in Starmaking: Realism, Anti-Realism, and Irrealism, ed. Peter McCormick (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1996), p. 156.)

Forget giraffes, and constellations, though. Here’s a much more policy relevant example. We might say that the tuberculosis bacillus was ‘discovered’ by Koch, in 1882. But that’s a very objectivist way of thinking about it. That is, it presumes that there are some objective facts of the matter no matter what we think, or even whether we think about them.

If you think that this image in
any way encodes what were once
a set of mind-independent
facts about the world standing
in any orderly relationship
with the individual
conventionally called ‘Bruno
Latour’ you’re probably so
gullible that you think
the Sun is objectively
larger than the Earth.
A constructivist might say, instead, that the tuberculosis bacillus was invented, or created in 1882. In that case the claim that Ramses II (who died about 3000 years earlier) probably died from tuberculosis couldn’t be true. I’m not making this up. This, in fact, is precisely what constructivist Bruno Latour has said:

‘‘Before Koch, the bacillus had no real existence.’’ [Reference 1] Bruno Latour, ‘‘Ramses II est-il mort de la tuberculose?’’ La Recherche, 307 (March, 1998), 84–85. Quoted in Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science (New York: Picador Press, 1998), 96–7.

So, we might say: disease, schmisease! If we constructed the facts about disease, we can just un-construct them, and construct some much more fun facts where we don’t get sick or injured.

After all, if we construct the world, let’s make it be the way we want it to be.

Instead of spending loads of money trying to work out how to combat infections that we constructed ourselves, let’s just not construct them in the first place!

Frankly, too many of the facts constructed so far are downright pretty gloomy and depressing. But if the postmodernists are right, then there’s no reason why the Malthusians should be writing the main storyline.

So here’s the postmodern world-saving plan:
  • Let’s just construct the fact that humans are immune to disease!
  • Or, maybe, we could construct the fact that no diseases exist!

Postmodernists agree that they’ll need a good few coffee breaks to decide which of the above two plans is the best. But either way, as far as disease goes, we’re sorted.

Whatever the details, the idea is that we can construct ourselves (us seven billion or so people) a much happier set of facts to live with.

So, once disease is unconstructed, or reconstructed, we can move on to energy and climate. Remember Goodman – “We have to make what we find, be it the Great Dipper, Sirius, food, fuel, or a stereo system.” Fuel! Think about it! Why, oh why, did we ever construct the fact that there wasn't lots more fuel (not to mention constructing the fact that so much of the little there 'is' happens to be under ground controlled by misogynistic anti-democratic creeps...) Here's the plan:
  • Maybe we should construct the fact that there’s all the cheap fossil fuel we need, and construct the fact that there’s no such things as climate change.
  • Or, we could construct the fact that there’s lots of cheap fuel, and that burning loads of fossil fuel will prevent climate change!

Either way: Sorted.

Population, schmopulation

Gaze in awe into the two,
or three, (or four, or thirteen)
eyes of Hilary Putnam.
Anyway, constructivists say that there’s not even an objective fact about how many people there are. This ‘seven billion’ talk is simply how it looks given one discourse about the world. Hilary Putnam makes this point in his 1990 Realism with a Human Face (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press). Putnam asks his reader to contemplate a toy universe consisting of three individuals (call them I1, I2, and I3). Then we can ask how many objects this universe contains:

Suppose . . . like some Polish logicians, I believe that for every two particulars there is an object which is their sum . . . . [then] I will find that the world of ‘‘three individuals’’ . . . actually contains seven objects.” (Hilary Putnam, Realism with a Human Face (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990), p. 96.)

So, there’s no objective fact about how many objects (including objects of some specific kind) there are. There are only facts relative to some chosen scheme. Now, if we went ‘Polish’ on the human population, we’d end up with vastly more than seven billion. But there’s no need to go there. It’s totally up to us.

This is why a key plank of the postmodern world-saving plan is to adopt a policy where the number turns out to be much less than seven billion.

Postmodernists haven’t yet worked out the details.  One option on the table is that we’ll only count relatively affluent people who can afford the luxury of relativist speculation. Another idea is that we’ll adopt a simpler counting scheme that goes “one, two, three, four, MANY”.

Either way: Sorted.

An un-named senior representative of the S.E.C. has
poured water on the postmodern proposal. “We’ve got
rules against trying to construct facts. If you break some of them
you can go to jail. Seriously. Ask Bernie Madoff.”


Several of the examples of constructivist views here can be found – along with careful arguments against them – in Paul Boghossian’s terrific 2006 book Fear of Knowledge (Oxford: Clarendon Press.)