Thursday, June 07, 2007

Help a modernist out?

Does postmodern science exist?

The closest I can come to an example would be chaos theory, and that's not terribly close.

I can't really imagine a postmodern approach to the scientific method, after all.

Would someone clue me in?




CK said...

CC, I have a book at home that has some readings in philosophy of science--when I get there, I'll take a look b/c I remember some pieces on postmodernism.

My gut reaction is that you probably have postmodern theorists of science, but not necessarily postmodern scientists... but I'll gladly defer to some folks who know what they're talking about.

LinguistFriend said...

I really don't believe that there are any such things as
postmodern partial differential equations, postmodern muscle histochemistry, postmodern electrical circuit theory, as things that I do have to deal with. If there were, I would take the postmodern ideas seriously.

CK said...

CC, a few things to look at:
- The Sokal hoax, which you can Google for (basically a theoretical physicist wrote a phony postmodern junk essay which got into a peer reviewed cultural studies journals)

- Human sexuality studies are a place where critiques of modernist assumptions make more sense, because we're dealing with topics that are easily influenced by cultural assumptions in the background-- so there's a field of feminist science criticism (looks like Sandra Harding is a proponent) but it's been criticized for being self-contradictory. That is, if epistemology is corrupted by those in power, then once the feminists get into power to do science "right", they've basically guaranteed skewed results. Of course, if their critique is somehow valid in gender studies (which I happen to think it is--like Sexing the Body by Anne Fausto Sterling)--then the question is why isn't it legitimate in other places like physics and chemistry?

- the big issue is realism versus anti-realism: are we getting closer and closer to some "truth" which exists outside of our constructions of reality, or are atoms, quarks etc. convenient fictions which work more or less efficiently at solving the problems of the day? After all, before Galileo, Copernican theory worked--to a point, and Newtonian physics work--in some manners. Course, there are different positions around those two approaches which I've just totally and blatantly oversimplified.

(The question of what metaphysical status to give numbers-- are they "real", and what does that mean? is relevant, since math 'works' without requiring numbers to be "real"....that is, depending on your view)

The big names to know are Thomas Kuhn and WVO Quine, and folks will toss them around--by varying interpretations--to justify their attacks upon certain epistemologies. Kuhn was adopted by Hans Kung, for example, in his massive history of Christianity, which was supposed to show paradigm shifts.

But the question is whether Kuhn supports the more radical interpretations of his description of paradigms, which are really ways which we understand what counts as a problem to be solved.

Um, I'll stop rambling now. This brought me back to some stuff I hadn't read in a while (Bas Van Frassen and Carl Hempel are two names to look up).

And yeah, whether physicists in their experimental labs are considering these questions... like Linguist Friend, I tend to doubt it. I think it's rather the theorists interpreting how science is done--which, of course, always makes things messy!

LinguistFriend said...

CK, for a long time I have felt that I should give attention to Kung, and your reference to a book of his of which I did not even know reminds me of that. Thank you. Willard Quine was my teacher in logic,
of a very formal sort which some people think of as the basis of mathematics, and quite unforgettable. I just used Kuhn's ideas of paradigm shift for the first time in my history of science work, contrasting Galen's sort of anatomy to that of Vesalius in regard to my specialty of the larynx, which was very useful. I am rarely enlightened by philosophers' discussions of scientific method; the history of science, when written by scientists who really understand it, is usually much more enlightening, at least for me.
For instance, I always am illuminated by the biography of Einstein by my friend Philipp Frank, who both knew AE well personally and understood his work thoroughly, since he succeeded him as prof. of theoretical physics at the Univ. of Prague.
But now I have to read Isaacson's new bio this summer, to see what we know new.

CK said...

LF - You had Quine as your logic teacher? I'm drooling with jealousy.

I've started to read more science recently (primarily on evolutionary theory) because I've found my education in it lacking and because I tend to question what philosophers say. Quantum physics comes up frequently in metaphysics, as does Einstein... and I have no good way to analyze whether the arguments actually follow from those theories or not. I'll have to squeeze the Einstein bio into my reading list--his religious views have always fascinated me, not to mention his physics!

You might enjoy this blog, too--from a physicist / philosophy student just out of U of C. She seems very sharp.

OK, I'll stop hijacking CC's thread now :)

kim said...

I'm not certain of what you mean by "postmodern", but you should look at a book called A Different Universe; Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down by Robert B. Laughlin, who is a physics professor at Stanford and has won the Nobel Prize in Physics (and draws and teaches with cartoons). We went to hear him speak -- it really is a pretty new take on physics.

Steve Caldwell said...


I don't know if it's possible to have postmodern science. So much of science is just organized system of skepticism. While that may have developed in a modernist framework, it's probably a useful method outside that framework as well.

Postmodern theory may provide criticism of science because there are times when some scientists are more influenced by factors other than observations derived from the material world (e.g. culture, religion, etc).

One of my favorite bloggers who talks about atheism, politics, and sexuality had the following quote from Dawkins on cultural relativism:

"It's his [Dawkins] response to the saying, "There are no atheists in foxholes." His response: "There are no cultural relativists at 30,000 feet." If you're in an airplane, he says, and it stays in the air, it's because a whole bunch of scientists got their sums right."

Perhaps some postmodern criticism is OK as a corrective for science that can become influenced by non-scientific cultural influences (e.g. the "bell curve" debates surrounding IQ testing and public policy).

But we do live in a world that is not a postmodern world either. Airplanes fly, computers make it easier for post-modern philosophers to publish, etc .... all this happens because we really do live in a physical reality.

If you want to create your own postmodern essays through software that strings together the right buzz words, go online here:

Doug Muder said...

I think postmodern science would just be science. The difference would be in how you feel about your conclusions: Are they capital-T Truth, or are they the conclusions you come to when you run the evidence through the science processor?