Over at Cocktail Party Physics, one of my very favorite blogs, where (by the way?) there are links to “the internet all atwitter” about the “Blogs for Brownback” website (he’s one of the three Republican candidates for President who don’t believe in evolution) – and this website that was supposedly set up by supporters calls heliocentrism a piece of indoctrination by liberals (nobody seems to know if it’s a satire or for real — I vote for satire)….
I’d better start over. Over at Cocktail Party Physics, I got into a conversation about science and postmodern thinking with a physicist who alluded to the Alan Sokal hoax paper published back in 1996 in a cultural studies journal. Sokal was a physicist at New York University who got fed up with the trendiness and shallowness of postmodern rhetoric and so-called thinking, and wrote a hilariously funny paper asserting that Quantum Mechanics supports the “feminist, poststructuralist critique of the substantive content” of science. The article is 11 pages long, with pages of bibiolography and more pages of really, really funny notes about Lacan and Derrida and particle physics, adding up to a grand total of 40 pages!
Now I’m mentioning this hoax for two reasons. 1) it reminds me that a confession is long overdue on this weblog from me as a literary theorist. Yes, okay, there is, I need to admit it, a lot of really vapid and shoddy stuff out there in the U. S. posing as postmodern thought….
My poor son at university has had to endure a couple of utterly useless classes filled with postmodern tripe tryong to pass for profundity, and students of mine will recognize my old refrain: “It’s because the U. S. never went through decades of structuralist thought and methodology, as the Continent did, before the arrival of poststructuralism.”
Deconstruction, especially, has been in the U. S. a trendy bandwagon embraced rhetorically with little real understanding by some. You can’t read Derrida without a real immersion in (post)structuralism. Nowadays, I would add that we don’t know phenomenology over here either, the way the Continent does, and you need that just as much. Our North American ideas of Husserl, Heidegger, Derrida, and others are like the rough idea most of us have of Godel’s theorum, without the slightest idea of how he arrived at it…. (It’s fascinating — more on this later)
Let’s stop pretending that anyone, no matter how highly trained in their discipline and how broadly educated, can grasp the fundamentals of another rigorous discipline without years of training and work. And who has all this time? I have worked so incredibly hard to gain the grasp of physics and of the history of physics that I possess and I have taught for years in this area and yet my grasp of physics is infantile when I read the cutting edge cosmology and particle physics going on at cosmic variance, for example. (I was happy to read a chemist on that blog saying “you guys could understand everything I do, because it’s all just basic physics, but I can’t begin to understand what you guys in cutting-edge physics are doing nowadays.” Hurray! Company even among the scientists.
Lately I’ve been studiously reading the Darwinian spokespersons and learning amazingly helpful tools for thought from them. I’m going to present some of these new paradigms in future posts. But when it comes to their thoughts about God and soul and mind, then I’m in my own area of specialization and they are way out of their fields.
And I also gotta tell you that Dawkins (The God Delusion) has no idea at all about the depths of philosophical thought to be found in Christian theology and religious practice, and Terry Eagleton is perfectly right to tax him about this, since Dawkins is writing against Christianity among other religons. (Good converstion on cosmic variance about this issue of Dawkins’ credentials.) Yet this lack of credentials and this utter lack of any deep understanding is only to be expected. How can any of us be this interdisciplinary? And yet, shouldn’t we be talking to one another about belief in God?
Yes, but not this way. This arrogant and intellectually shallow way. (I don’t think Dawkins even knows he is being arrogant. He seems a charming person. It’s that tragic Oxford analytic close-mindedness, if I may say so, that has wounded me all of my life.) Our inevitable disciplinary limitations should lead us all to epistemological humility.
Not to the grotesquely huge oversimplifications and unfounded leaps Dawkins is so examplary of, in his arguments against religion and against belief in the divine. He hasn’t a ghost of a notion of what “divinity” entails in rigorous thought, or else he would know that he is a believer in God, as, in his charming honesty, he makes so apparent in the 3 quarks daily interview. (But look at the anti-theistic denials in the comments there! Link is in my post on Richard Dawkins.)
The scientific apologists against God, the self-declared atheists (who all seem to feel deep awe before the universe and its enormous complexity and order), are quick to say that there is a vast difference between “sophisticated theology” and your everyday run-of-the-mill Christian religion, which they equate with American Fundamentalism and creationism. (This is like equating Islam with a militant jihadist movement, except that many Fundamentalists, unlike jihadists, have profound understandings of God and are simply scientifically and politically naive. Not all of them, maybe not even most of them — who could know? Well, maybe the same is true of some of these poor young jihadists, too.)
Yes, creationism and Intelligent Design need to be addressed, but it takes a closer analysis than simply supposing the problem is reducible to belief in God! Thank goodness for atheists like Sean Carroll, who points out in his witty review of Dawkins that you can’t just blame Northern Ireland on “religion.”
So look, I don’t step in and correct physicists in their work in their discipline – how could I? Yet I can step in and make some historical and philosophical interventions relative to the assumptions scientists are making when they claim their way of thinking is simply, purely, “reason” — and that other fields and conclusions about other subjects are prima facie irrational. (And boy, is that resented in our highly charged political climate.)
If you look at the Sokal article and read the first three paragraphs, you will see a vivid and wonderful misrepresentation of the relationship between scientists and postmodern thinkers, boiled accurately down to a hypothetical, stark “yes/no” disagreement about the existence of “an external world.”
Utterly wrong as this is, it seems to be precisely the stereotypical picture that most scientists have of the boogey-man they call “postmodernism.” I got a wonderful comment a couple days ago about the shock and dismay a scientist who deeply respects and loves science experienced reading about what postmoderns “said about science,” and I know that my own very thoughtful physicist colleagues at my university went rigid with hostility at the notion of any epistemological limitations on science, for the same reasons.
Yet where do genuine postmodern thinkers say there is no external world, or that the substantive content of science is “merely socially constructed,” or that science isn’t a valid way of knowing? It’s this yes/no, either/or, dichotomizing manner of thinking that is itself impeding the thoughtful conversations we are called to, if we embrace the vision of the arts and sciences.
As you know if you’ve been reading me, I tend to trace this reductive dualism to the dominant Cartesian dualisms that founded scientific modernity in the 17th and 18th centuries. (How very “postmodern” of me!)
Scientific advances have moved us way beyond that kind of dualism, though, looking at it from historical studies and from theory of knowing. (Not Anglo-American theory of knowing, I admit, but Greco-European theory of knowing, and also lingustics — against not Chomskian linguistics, which is as dualistic as hell, but Continental linguistics again.)
So what am I to do about this empasse (the empasse between science and theory that so effectively blocks understanding), in the context of this highly politicized hostility between embattled camps here in the U. S.
Well, I’m going back to my deepest beliefs and commitments: that science is rigorous and beautiful, and that theory is rigorous and beautiful, and that so is faith, taken as a way of knowing, and in particular as a way of knowing in the (prescientific) tradition of Western theology and practice, which I happen to know best.
It doesn’t work for me to argue the long historical overview, because people “hear” me as merely uttering the stereotypical postmodern message that is captured and parodied so well in the Sokal paper….
Better for me, then, to just do it. To work respectfully and closely in and with the beautiful. To explain by reading what’s beautiful in the Darwinians, for instance, and what’s beautiful in Plato or Augustine or Aquinas, for another instance, and to practice the thoughtful conversation that I would wish to argue for, between “camps” that are so falsely and needlessly and wastefully divided. Always remembering, of course, that I know, as the Greek philosophers knew, that “the beautiful things are difficult.”
To close this post, what’s especially beautiful is that there are persons out there reading these feeble and groping attempts on this weblog toward conversation, which is a deep grace I didn’t used to believe in, because I didn’t know it was true, until this “empirical proof” arrived.
By the way, this kind of reading the text, such as I did in my post on Kevin Hart’s Guide to Postmodernism, takes time. I’m working at fever pitch, but I don’t know how often I’ll be posting, so put me on a feed aggregator, folks, if only you know how to do that. (I haven’t been able to figure it out, for the set of blogs I want to check in with….I’m just a lowly humanist, after all.)