Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

But Then Who Will Save Us?

In my last few entries to the blog I have defended what are sometimes derided as abstruse and "postmodernist" views. That I persist in defending these effete and frivolous theoretical concerns, this menacing relativism, all the while cheerfully defending democracy, science, and progress right here on the same blog is apparently infuriating to some portion of my scant readership.

From both the left and the right I have received exasperated e-mails pronouncing that I simply don't understand what democracy, science, and progress consist of and depend on in some deep sort of way. For these critics democracy, science, and progress appear to rely for their intelligibility and force on the stalwart defense of certain "realist" intuitions that look to me more or less indistinguishable from the claims of religious fundamentalists.

I want to illustrate my point by disagreeing with the spirit of a passage from which many generations of good progressives have drawn inspiration in their struggles for democracy and social justice. My inspiration for this argument comes from Richard Rorty's similar use of the same passage in a chapter of his book, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. The passage is from George Orwell's incomparably bleak and influential depiction of the workings of a modern mediated police state, 1984:
His heart sank as he thought of the enormous power arrayed against him... And yet he was right! ... Truisms are true, hold on to that! The solid world exists, its laws do not change. Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall towards the earth's centre. With the feeling that he was speaking to O'Brien [the novel's unflappable and accomplished intellectual villain, a representative of the Inner Party of the police state], and also that he was setting forth an important axiom, [the novel's protagonist Winston] wrote: "Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows."

For Winston it is the solidity of the world itself (which he mistakenly treats as one and the same thing as the certainty he maintains in scientifically warranted beliefs) that buttresses his poor personal strength in the fight against overwhelming social injustice and organized violence. It is in the truth of our truisms that we are equal to the overbearing forces arrayed against us.

Needless to say, I myself draw no strength at all from such romantic fancies, and in fact I consider such faithful commonplaces to be deranging distractions from the actual work on which humans must depend to preserve some measure of peace and justice in the world. It is only fair to point out that even in the novel itself Winston's faith is exposed as heartbreakingly naive. If he thinks that his knowledge that 2 + 2 = 4 will somehow protect him from the suave O'Brien's taste for torture he discovers soon enough just how wrong he is.

All of this reminds me of the way I sometimes feel myself to differ in my own passionate and longstanding advocacy of nonviolence from the faith that lies at the heart of the commitment to nonviolence of many of my own heroes. While I am moved by the example and by the vision of Tolstoy, Gandhi, King, Day, and so many others, I have to admit that as a cheerful nonjudgmental atheist of more than two decades' conviction my own nonviolence lacks the "secure" foundation they confidently claim for their own. I cannot share in that moment which seems to recur so often in their writings and in the story of their lives when, confronted by the unfathomably monstrous scale of oppression and aggression, they testify to the faith that they ride an irresistible tide of history, that injustice and tyranny will be impelled to a devastation they can somehow discern in the very grain of the world.

Of course, Dostoievsky once famously worried that if god does not exist then all is permitted. Winston Smith maintains a faith in a sort of regulatory power inhering in scientifically warranted descriptions, just as many spiritual champions of nonviolence maintain the faith that their vision is not only righteous but freighted with inevitability. It is as if these faithful ones are untouched by Dostoievsky's quandary altogether. Truth exists and is captured in full by our scientific truisms, God's love will prevail and is implemented in full by our nonviolent struggles against injustice: and because truth exists, because God's love exists then evil is not permitted to prevail in the world.

But I do not believe the Universe has preferences in the matter of how humans describe it. I do not believe the Universe has preferences in the matter of how humans arrange their social affairs.

Because I do not believe in God I find that I pin my hopes instead on the people with whom I share the world.

I think that the norms, protocols, and institutions of consensus science provide us with the most reliable candidates for belief when what we want from a belief is more power to control our environment and anticipate experience. I think that the norms, protocols, and institutions of democratic governance, universal rights and general welfare provide us with the fairest, most prosperous, least corrupt, least violent social order.

I think that the warranted descriptions of consensus science are every one of them defeasible, and every one of them freighted with the values of the political practices and social worlds in which they arise, just as I think that democratic attainments are unspeakably fragile and susceptible to corruption. The views that seem to be derided and denigrated under the banner of "postmodernism" seem to me to diagnose exactly the difficulties of sensible clear-headed advocates of consensus science and democratization in a world for which technological developments have confounded traditional comfortable pieties on which people normally rely in times of threatening change and confront them instead with an overabundant inassimilable plurality of differences, demands, dangers, and problems.

Those who think I do not grasp what science, democracy, and progress depend on for their continued existence could not be more wrong. With no God to depend on to show us the Way, with no manifest Truths to invest our convictions with certainty, it is we who are called upon to make a world in the midst of our distress. Democracy, like science, needs no priests... only collaborators.

7 comments:

Robin Zebrowski said...

One of my very favorite things about you, Dale, is that you not only understand these things better than 99.99% of the population (probably even the population working in fields directly related to these things), but you are the sole defender of postmodernism who ever gets me to rethink my criticisms.

I'm glad you aren't taking furious emails seriously, since I really value your unique ability to grasp and straddle both sides of this debate so incredibly fluently.

Doctor Logic said...

Dale,

As I understand it, this is your key claim vis a vis science:

I think that the warranted descriptions of consensus science are every one of them defeasible, and every one of them freighted with the values of the political practices and social worlds in which they arise...

This is inaccurate.

Newtonian physics has been displaced as a fundamental physical theory. However, it has not been invalidated. The experiments which validated Newtonian physics haven't been refuted or discredited. We still use Newtonian physics to design cars and bridges. Newton has only been displaced by Einstein and Schroedinger at the relativistic and quantum limits.

As for the claim that our theories are "freighted with the values of the political practices and social worlds in which they arise," this seems like an overly broad claim.

In the social sciences, where it is extremely difficult to isolate causes and effects, politics and social customs inevitably play a larger role. People are tempted to justify policy positions without the science to back them up. However, this is not science's problem. Controlled experiments yield repeatable results, and confirmed theories make reliable predictions in their accepted domain and to their tested precision.

As I see it, postmodernism is too eager to discredit science, when postmodernism is little more than a critique of social bias. Again, my question is, what specifically has postmodernism done for us? Has it achieved any tangible goals? I fear it may only have served as an excuse to criticise science.

If anything, it is postmodernism that looks like a religion. Postmodernism says "look at the world, and you will see bias and arbitrary custom." As with Taoism, you will see the Yin and Yang of bias in all things, no matter what you see! But what experiment could you do, what observation could you make that would falsify the claims of the postmodernist (if the claims were false)? Like Taoism, postmodernism appears empty of consequence, and filled with motivational (or rather, de-motivational) devices.

Like I always say, all meaningful propositions are scientific.

Dale Carrico said...

Falsifiability is a benchmark of scientificity, and so all scientifically warranted beliefs should be defeasible in principle. I don't quite get why you would say this is "inaccurate."

Do you mean that falsifiability is not really considered a criterion for scientific practice? Are you saying that practicing scientists give lip service to the principle but don't actually act on it? Where is the inaccuracy?

Your own example highlights the fact that scientific vocabularies or research programs can be displaced without being defeated, as happened with the shift from Newtonian to Einsteinian vocabularies but happened differently, mind you, in the shift from Ptolemaic to Copernican vocabularies (among many others).

But nothing that I have said about defeasibility would make me skeptical about the possibility of many different paradigmatic scientific developmental pathways, so I fail to see the force of your example yet. We can quibble about the precise point at which accommodations, ad hoc distinctions, qualifications in the face of experimental evidence demand we describe paradigmatic shifts as defeats versus adjustments. But it is hard to see how the vicissitudes in such a discussion would suggest my larger claim about defeasibility is "inaccurate," however.

My key claims about science are that scientifically warranted statements empower prediction and control, that there is nothing in realist or correspondentist intuitions that support or explain what it is about warranted scientific beliefs that yield this confidence, that these justified beliefs yield confidence but not certainty, and that the defense of consensus science demands the defense of the actual practices and protocols of good science rather than a defense of parochial, in my view essentially theological, so-called "realist" intuitions that treat scientific successes as an indication that the world "prefers" to be described in the terms warranted by consensus science from moment to moment.

You say: "As I see it, postmodernism is too eager to discredit science." In my view it is those who would "defend" science by re-writing it in the image of a priestly interpretation of "manifest truths" that discredit science far more.

Do you think I am eager to discredit science? Do you think that I undermine consensus science by focusing on keeping its practices transparent and best standards in place rather than focusing on quixotic quests to "protect" its purity and integrity from the depredations of pragmatic "relativism," intstrumentalism, or social construction?

What gets pilloried as "fashionable nonsense" and "self-referential incoherence" and "postmodernism" in views like my own look to me instead like sensible admissions about testability, defeasibility, and the vulnerability of both research practices and results to bias. I see myself as shoring up what makes science work rather than discrediting it.

You say that "postmodernism is little more than a critique of social bias." Well, there is certainly more to my own critiques (which I do not consider "postmodernist" for reasons I have stated elsewhere, but which I know are considered postmodernist by those who revile postmodernism) than a critique of social bias.

You say: "Again, my question is, what specifically has postmodernism done for us? Has it achieved any tangible goals? I fear it may only have served as an excuse to criticise science." I myself fear that so-called "postmodern" views are smeared as "anti-science" too often by those who want to cast themselves as a priestly elite speaking the voice of the world's preferences in the matter of human beliefs and descriptions. These priestly mouthpieces prop themselves up with the luster of scientific successes, even though not one of these reliable results nor any of the empowerment they have afforded humanity depended on these priestly parasites of all people, but only the hard work of scientifically literate collaborators supported by good historically contingent standards and practices.

As for your curious criticism that "postmodernism" has done nothing for us, again, one either is edified by philosophy or one is not. The theorists whose work is regularly castigated as "postmodernist" are just doing what many philosophers have always tended to do. I like some of them better than others myself. But I see little reason to claim that theorists hostile to such "postmodernism," however construed, have managed to "deliver results" more than the theorists they are deriding have done.

"If anything," you go on to say, "it is postmodernism that looks like a religion. Postmodernism says 'look at the world, and you will see bias and arbitrary custom.'" Now, this seems a particularly curious claim. Postmodernism is defined in its canonical treatment by Lyotard as "a distrust of metanarratives." Fundamentalisms are quintessential illustrations of the sort of metannaratives distrusted by "postmodernity."

It was of course precisely its secular, cosmopolitan, ironical temper that intially prompted conservatives to despise "postmodernism" way back before some liberals decided that it was conservatives who were the real postmodernists. It's the usual topsy-turvy inanity that happens when people fail to do their homework. These liberals are deploying old conservative smears about "postmodernism" against the conservatives themselves. What is lost in this frantic back and forth is the work of the theorists themselves -- many of which say quite incisive things about the force of norms in a world transformed and pluralized by disruptive technological change.

But quite apart from these conventional scholarly frsutrations, I find myself wanting to understand the larger theoretical or maybe just temperamental stakes that would drive you to identify "postmodernity," so-called, as a "religious" attitude. I mean, is "modernism" likewise a religious attitude on your view? Is skepticism a religion? Is pragmatism a religion?

I find myself wondering just how many of these "postmodern" texts you have actually read all the way through. To call attention to the play of bias in scientific practice as many of them do is hardly the same thing as saying that nothing but bias exists or that it is such bias that defines scientific practice. Can science be valuable and valued only so long as we pretend that it is somehow pure, perfect, ahistorical, an engine delivering certanties? Nonsense.

By way of conclusion, here is what looks to me like a change of subject: You say, "all meaningful propositions are scientific." I would want to hear much more about what exactly you mean by this before I comment on it, but there are certainly versions of such a claim that seem to me terribly wrongheaded. I think there are scientific, moral, ethical, esthetic, and political beliefs -- all of them definitively distinguishable from one another (however interrelated they may be). Moral beliefs -- what Sellars describes as "we intentions" -- are not warranted by the same standards and protocols as scientific beliefs. Neither is any less meaningful than the other on its own terms for these differences. Why should the defense of science demand the reduction of everything to science or the re-writing of science in the image of religious faith? I remain unconvinced.

Doctor Logic said...

Are you saying that practicing scientists give lip service to the principle but don't actually act on it?

Not at all. What I am saying is that scientific theories do get confirmed over certain domains and to certain levels of precision. That is, a degree of precision and a domain of applicability is often part of the theory itself. Experiment reveals the true extent of the precision and domain. However, once revealed, the validity of the theory is not generally in question.

We've all read absurd accounts of scientific revolutions which portray Newton as having been wholly overthrown by Einstein. This is no more reasonable than the other extreme, e.g., to declare that quarks and leptons are the absolute, fundamental units of reality. Quarks and leptons are artifacts in a highly successful mathematical model. Indeed, we have very good reason to believe that the precision of the Standard Model of particle physics will be limited at very high energies. Yet, even if we find M-Theory better describes nature at high energy, we will probably continue to use the Standard Model to account for medium energy phenomena.

I withdraw my inaccurate remark. When I read the word defeasible, I read it in the English sense of the word (capable of being anulled or invalidated), not the philosophical one. The philosophical definition, as applied to science, is acceptable.

Do you think I am eager to discredit science?

Of course not. I am quite confident in your respect for the power and function of science. :)

What I am trying to understand is the power and function of, say, Lyotard's skepticism towards metanarratives.

Do you think that I undermine consensus science by focusing on keeping its practices transparent and best standards in place rather than focusing on quixotic quests to "protect" its purity and integrity from the depredations of pragmatic "relativism," intstrumentalism, or social construction?

But isn't science itself, due to its cumulative nature, a metanarrative? Based on the assumption that the universe is consistent and has relatively fixed laws, then there is a logical algorithm that can be applied to accumulate knowledge of those laws. Saying that scientific revolutions destroy accumulated knowledge (an inaccuracy) is a suspiciously convenient way to reject metanarratives while accepting science as something else.

To be clear, there are two things I'm not saying.

First, I'm not saying there's an absolute guarantee of consistency or of fixed laws. We just don't have any reasonable alternatives to this metanarrative (if it is one).

Second, I am not defending metanarratives in general. I just wonder what postmodernism brings to the table that analytic philosophy didn't already possess. All ideas require sound justification, so it doesn't seem like anything new to say that the subset of overarching ideas also need justification. In this sense, postmodernism looks like (or is charicatured as) a metanarrative.

Is postmodernism a metanarrative, a statement of the obvious, or something completely different?

Why should the defense of science demand the reduction of everything to science or the re-writing of science in the image of religious faith? I remain unconvinced.

This isn't really my claim.

What I am saying is that we only know what a proposition means when we know what other propositions are contingent on it, and which other propositions are inconsistent with it. It is a question of translation, and translation invariably involves empiricism (I regard mathematics as an empirical endeavor).

We can only say that postmodernism has meaning when we can clearly establish what facts are consistent with it, and which facts are not. If postmodernism is equivalent to the observation of some already known facts, then it could be a broadly descriptive term, but doesn't have any content of its own. A book of observations of train arrival and departure times isn't a train timetable unless it predicts future train movements. Likewise, we have to ask what postmodernism does. Is it an actual algorithm for determining whether a metanarrative is reasonable? Does it predict that every metanarrative is false? If it does not provide the algorithm or state that all are false, then it would seem to be a statement like "some metanarratives are false," which we already knew to be the case.

Pace Arko said...

I missed the beginning of this debate but, in reading "But Then Who Will Save Us?" in isolation, I think it stands up pretty well.

The scientific method is a very recent invention in human history. There is no manifest destiny, no quasi-mystical trend that will assure the victory of science over all. If the last hundred years, or even the last few months, is any guide, we see that science can be swept aside with shocking ease.

If someone is uncomfortable with what evolution reveals all they need is access to a school board and some good press. As Winston Smith learned the hard way, political and social power trumps science. If we are not confident, vigilent, patient, hardworking and thoughtful, we're only a coup or an election away from Lysenkoism or the Taliban.

Science and democracy needs collaborators indeed! Dissent and skepticism at the hallmarks of a healthy society.

Pace Arko said...

Ahem, I meant, "...are the hallmarks...."

Lincoln Cannon said...

Dale, I enjoyed this post and agree with most of it. My reservations stem primarily from the assumptions you're making about God. They are, I recognize, common assumptions, but ones that I (and many uncommon theists) do not share. I suppose you could say I worship a postmodern God, who does indeed want us to save ourselves and all our dead.