Monday, July 27, 2009

Is Atheism Turning on Humanism?

Alan Sokal

Back in the 1990s major physicist Alan Sokal scored a major triumph by embarrassing Postmodernists. With one fell swoop he almost single-handedly took out Postmodernism as the hot new academic flavor of the decade. It's been fifteen years since he published an article in a major literary magazine. The article, consisting of a large group of ridiculous statements making a parody of Postmodern opinion, got past the editors because they wanted to a major physicist would be on their side. The Postmodern world had just rocked by the revelation that one of its major stars, Paul Demann, was a Nazi collaborator in WWII. The community had not fully overcome the stigma when Sokal's article was published. The article said things like "scientists no longer care about the existence of the external world." The article was embarrassed by Postmoderns, then Skoal came back and said "look at what fools these guys are, they can't even see when they are being played." This was probably the final blow that turned the tide from interest in Postmodernism back to scientism and left Postmoderns forever cut off as a past academic fad. Yet the tide was moving in that direction anyway. The battles of feminism raged at UTD at the time I started but even in the early days (91) people were saying "Postmodernism is only big in places like Texas, I have a friend on the East coast who says it's already old hat up there." It's real hay day was in the early 80s.

Fifteen years latter a new book tries to reprise the coup. With Postmodernism less of a threat the spin has been altered just a bit.

BEYOND THE HOAX: Science, Philosophy and Culture. Alan Sokal. xxii + 465 pp. Oxford University Press, 2008. $34.95.

In 1996, physicist Alan Sokal played an elaborate trick on some unsuspecting humanists and social scientists—namely, the editors of the leftist journal Social Text—by submitting an essay filled with at least six kinds of nonsense. The editors didn’t catch (or were willing to countenance) the nonsense and published the essay. In response, humanists and social scientists embarrassed (or outraged) by Sokal’s hoax lashed out, sometimes in ways that made them look even worse than the editors; and Sokal found himself hailed by legions of fans and supporters who credited him with finally exposing the vacuity of (a) cultural studies, (b) literary theory, (c) postmodernism, (d) obscurantist jargon, (e) science studies, (f) people who write about disciplines they don’t know much about, and (g) all of the above. Over the past 12 years, accordingly, I’ve met a number of colleagues who spit and curse at the very sound of Sokal’s name—and a much larger number of colleagues, journalists and general readers who credit Sokal with having proved once and for all that everything humanists have done since 1970 has been bunk.

Notice the ad first places the joke squarly on the shoulders of "humanists" and "socil scientists" not "Derridians" or Posmtoderns. It was actually one school of Postmodernism that the joke was played upon, the called "hard project" people who really questioned the epistemological basis for fact finding. But Derridians and Foucaultians and other Postmdoerns were weren't involved. Those groups had their own worries at that point. This ad mentions Postmoderns (without any specifics) but its ax is clearly grinding against a group more often associated with atheism, humanists. How social scientists got into the mix I'm sure because they really are not hard project people. Some labeling themselves as "social scisentists" in psychology can be very wavy gravy, but most hard core social scientists are right in line with Sokal in terms of being anti-religious number crunchers. The long tirade of people the book puts down reads like a wish list of Talk radio.

As the article in the book ad (It's actually a book review) goes on to insult philosophers and people who think. The bulwark of scientism must be "epistemological realism" the fantasy that our senses give us a real view of the world and there's nothing to think about, just collect the facts and believe white lab coat guy.

Since then, Sokal has teamed up with Jean Bricmont and taken aim at epistemological relativism in the philosophy of science. Sokal and Bricmont note, for example (in an essay reprinted—with revisions and updates—as chapter seven of Sokal’s new book, Beyond the Hoax), that major figures in science studies are given to making such assertions as “the validity of theoretical propositions in the sciences is in no way affected by factual evidence” (Kenneth J. Gergen) and “there is no sense attached to the idea that some standards or beliefs are really rational as distinct from merely locally accepted as such” (Barry Barnes and David Bloor, founders of the “strong programme” or “Edinburgh school” in science studies). “All this,” remark Sokal and Bricmont, “indicates the existence of a radically relativist academic Zeitgeist, which is weird.”

It's hardly inexplicable. The Scientism of the academic right is so totalizing. Everything has to be number crunching, the only thing that one can ever believe in or care about is that which white lab coat guy tells us is "scientific." Of course course lab coat guy is totally selective in his affirmations of "scientific." Feelings don't matter, you are not individual,you don't feel what you feel, i have to tell you what you feel. So Next you are unemployed just remember, vote for the guy I tell you to vote for because your feelings of total depression are totally unimportant. White lab coat guy wants unconditional control of all the universe, your soul, your heart, your mind, your vote, your labor power, everything. It must be true because science is the only definition of truth that matters. Only the priest of knowelge white lab coat guy can say what's what. The htred of social science is probalby the result of the C.Wright Mills type of critique who long ago (50s) pointed out (The Sociological Imagination) that a priesthood of knowledge had been produced from the number crunching outlook.

It is weird, but then, standards of weirdness tend to vary from discipline to discipline. Sokal, coming from a field with significantly stricter protocols for interpretation than those of literature, never seemed comfortable dealing with people who like to hypothesize imaginary gardens with real toads in them or to meditate on cold pastorals that tease us out of thought. But now that Sokal has left the terrain of literary theory, he has indeed gone beyond the hoax and into realms where the distinction between justified and unjustified belief actually matters to the world: specifically, the history and philosophy of science (which is sometimes conducted by people who are rigorously indifferent to the question of whether a scientific theory is actually true) and religion (which is practiced by people who are rigorously indifferent to the claim that beliefs should be rationally justified).

Of course we don't don't expect the readership of American Reductionist, I mean American Scientist to think about anything seriously that doesn't involve statistical tables and white lab coats. It would never occur to those people that others have different standards of what "justification" means. To them the only form of justification the only thing that could ever justified is the ideology, the all consuming ideology that encompasses all reality and justifies itself in circular fashion.

As an atheist Debunking Christianity echos the sentiments of the ideology:

I'm an engineer, I make a good living solving problems using facts and my world view. The success of my world view translates into substantive value in the form of money, reputation, awards and raises. My world view comes from the school of hard knocks, engineering and the university.

your incoherence speaks for itself.

I stopped responding to you in my IDQ articles a couple of months ago when I realized that you were just ranting incoherently and a rejoinder would have been just be a chase after a red herring.

I think I'm done responding to you now as well.

He said this to me in response to my argument that there are other forms of knowledge than science. There's a phase in witch hunts where the witch hunters tighten their grip and go after those who helped them in earlier phases. This is what we see atheism doing to itself now. They are starting to turn on the humanistic side of atheism. They are reaching for a "more scientific than thou" sort of Zealotry.

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