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Can postmodernism and science peacefully coexist? Salon readers sound off on "Waiting for G


Salon Staff
March 25, 2005 2:00AM (UTC)

[Read the review by Laura Miller.]

Holy cow. Someone outside of science gets it. How we in science have struggled against the formalism of Hilbert from within and the misinterpretation of the liberal artist from without. It has been a difficult task.

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Thank you for this most wonderful review. It has made my many years of Salon membership worthwhile in a single piece.

-- Chris Canestaro

The following paragraph from Miller's article is embarrassingly wrong:

"Very roughly, the positivists declared that only statements that can in principle be factually verified by the evidence provided by our senses have any real meaning. Other statements, dealing with abstractions or the definitions of words (i.e., 'All bilingual people speak two languages') they dubbed 'trivial' or 'meaningless' because their meanings exist only within the system of language. (Wittgenstein call such statements 'language games.')"

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No positivist (or anyone else) ever said that definitions are meaningless. For many philosophers, definitions form another class of meaningful sentences (called "analytic" since Kant), different from empirically verifiable ones.

Wittgenstein did not call definitions (nor sentences "dealing with abstractions," whatever that means) language games. Rather, this term applies to all linguistic activity; it is an analogy ("speaking is like playing a game") that is intended to give us a different perspective on ordinary linguistic phenomena.

Furthermore, the Wittgenstein who spoke of language games (in the 1930s and '40s) was explicitly opposed to those elements in his earlier work (from the 1910s and '20s) that had given comfort to the positivists.

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-- Gabe Eisenstein

It seems to be in our nature that humans aspire so arduously to the ideal that we can ascertain absolute truth. So it should come as no surprise that so many intellectual battles are fought between the modernist and neo-Platonic bearers of the metanarrative banner and those who Laura Miller refers to so derisively as "pomo relativists."

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Miller and Goldstein both suggest that postmodern proponents of a constructed reality are head-in-the-clouds blowhards who usurp Gödel's admirable work for their own nefarious purposes. Which purposes, according to them, include engaging in "a conspiracy to make men stupid," by arguing that "the very notion of the objectively true is a socially constructed myth."

-- Alexander Millet

Apparently, postmodernism has become for half-educated scientists what liberalism is for half-educated conservatives: the root of all contemporary evil.

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Postmodernism is many things, but Miller's description of it as a philosophical movement where "every form of knowledge came to be analyzed as a set of rules created by flawed human beings whose biases inevitably infected those rules" is wildly, hilariously and absolutely wrong.

Postmodernism, in Lyotard for example, focuses on the importance of the stories people tell about what they know. It examines those stories -- not the actual knowledge, good, bad or indifferent at the base of those stories -- and attempts to uncover the mechanisms by which those stories persuade or repel.

Postmodernism does not address the reality of knowledge, but focuses on how we perceive knowledge, how knowledge gets organized into cultural narratives. It does not -- despite its abuse by bad pomo theorists -- challenge the truths of science. It simply explores the way science tells those truths.

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It is a very particular and limited way to see the world. It is not a be-all and end-all but one of many extremely useful tools. And like many other useful tools, it is prone to dangerous abuse when wielded by the malicious to create harm.

To be clear: I am not equating postmodernism to science, except to the extent to which they are misunderstood.

Gödel's theory is one successful attempt to describe an abstruse -- to us laypeople -- aspect of logic and reality. Postmodernism is a method -- which, in the best hands, is sometimes successful -- that attempts to describe how we tell stories about, among other things, logic and reality.

We are foolish to mischaracterize either, as we will miss not only important insights into our world but also important truths.

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-- Richard Einhorn

It will apparently come as a great surprise to Laura Miller that, whatever its shortcomings, postmodernism is not a hotbed of positivists. Not even remotely so. The book sounds interesting, but I hope Goldstein has a better grasp of issues than Miller would seem to indicate.

-- David Jensen

Enjoyed this write-up; I always enjoy a takedown of the pomo crowd. The irony: I've never met proponents of ideas so absolutist concerning the truth of their ideas than the postmodern relativists.

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-- Ed Adams

While it may seem that Rebecca Goldstein is wresting Gödel's legacy from the muck of postmodernism, her book is also an important retort to the religious right. Conservatives happily exploit the willful scientific confusion of the New Age. All that woozy uncertainty makes people reach for their Bibles. So, if we don't disown things like "Dancing Wu Li Masters" or "What the Bleep Do We Know," we shouldn't be surprised when creationists dress in lab coats and demand equal time for their "competing theories."

Progressives must rigorously defend a mature type of objective truth -- mature because it incorporates, in a scientific way, an understanding of the limits of our knowledge. Einstein may have taught us relativity, but he did it by giving us equations to know exactly what happens in different frames of reference. Yes, Heisenberg taught us about uncertainty but, once again, in an exact equation that tells us what we know and when. Similarly, Gödel was not saying, "It's all up for grabs." When the smart people get wobbly on truth, the dumb people will be happy to jump in and define it for all of us.

-- Aaron Shure

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