Exposing Postmodernist Rubbish in The
November 1, 2022
Field of Science
According to Marx, the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle. Accordingly, there had been struggles between corresponding philosophies namely idealism and materialism representing the interest of exploiting and exploited classes respectively, since long past. This struggle will persist till classes exist in society but the form of these two main trends of philosophy may change and in particular, the idealist philosophy has adopted various forms that could deceive the people in the present capitalist imperialist system in the age of its continuous decay.
We are going to discuss such a trend of idealism which became popular among some of the so-called leftist intellectuals in the advanced capitalist countries in the second half of 20th Century. This world view is popularly known as postmodernism. Postmodernists in the name of “sociology of scientific knowledge” deny that scientific facts have any necessary relation to causal processes and theoretical entities, which they claim to describe. Using various new disciplines of natural sciences, they try to establish that science is mere construction but not a discovery of reality and what we consider as truth is nothing, but our acceptance of it with authority.
Two physicists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont wrote a book entitled ‘Fashionable nonsense’ where they clearly showed that all the interpretations of natural sciences given by postmodernists are either devoid of meaning or gibberish. Those postmodernists even do not understand the meaning of those scientific laws and spout non-senses and thus creates mere confusions among the common people. Of course, Sokal and Bricmont confine themselves in defending the materialism developed in the period of enlightenment in Europe. But the real development of modern sciences cannot be accommodated in the materialism of enlightenment, which though progressive in its own time, remains essentially mechanistic. For that we have to go beyond and bring forth dialectical materialism which sees the matter in its motion, in its change and finally it incorporates the dialectical features that remain in every material process causing the matter to move forward continually.
It’s not easy to describe Postmodernism in few words as it is not a coherent philosophical outlook. It deals with various kinds of disciplines. But the main thread running through all these postmodernist discourse, places the emphasis on the fragmented nature of the world and of human knowledge. They view the human being and their social relations to be constituted by language. Language is all that we know about the world and beyond it there is no other reality to be comprehended. Hence, there is no such universal concept like ‘capitalist system’, ‘class struggle’ or ‘scientific communism’. Elen Meiksins Wood informs us that according to post modernism, “There is no such thing as a social system (e.g., the capitalist system) with its own systematic unity and “laws of motion.” There are only many different kinds of power, oppression, identity and “discourse.” Not only do we have to reject the old “grand narratives,” like Enlightenment concepts of progress, we have to give up any idea of intelligible historical process and causality, and with it, evidently, and idea of “making history….Since there are no systems and no history susceptible to causal analysis, we cannot get to the root of the many powers that oppress us; and we certainly cannot aspire to some kind of united opposition, some kind of general human emancipation, or even a general contestation of capitalism, of the kind that socialists used to believe in. The most we can hope for is a lot of particular and separate resistances.”
Actually the attack on grand narratives has essential implications in two correlated viewpoints; first one is the rejection to consider capitalism as world system that continually generates exploitation and oppression, economic crisis, incessant war for imperialist domination, increasing poverty in backward countries and the second one is to characterize any universal programme to dislodge the exploitative world capitalist system with the aim of establishing any egalitarian society to be essentially oppressive. In fact, famous postmodernist Foucault is more explicit in expressing his view that categorically announces, “The history of power cannot be narrated from the twin sites of political economy and the state.” Thus, it is implied that resistance to power can also not be organized as some project to change the nature of the state or politico-economic system. Foucault also opined that since Power is everywhere there is really no place where resistance can be distinguished from power itself, what is resistance is in reality another kind of power (Post-modernism Today, by Siraj, 2003).
Though postmodernists deal with various subjects with the aim of negating any effort towards acquiring unified knowledge about reality, we, in this article, shall confine ourselves more or less in dealing with their opinion regarding natural sciences. In this case also, their claim is that natural science founded on the conviction that nature is governed by some universal, immutable laws, is just an expression of the imperialistic and oppressive principles based on which western states dominate the world. Analyzing various incoherent opinions expressed by postmodernists, their common outlook can be paraphrased as
- What makes a belief true is not in correspondence with an element of reality, but its adoption and authentication by the relevant community of enquirers.
- Scientists at the research front cannot settle their disagreements through better experimentation, more knowledge, more advanced theories, or clearer thinking.
- The truth about the natural world is what the powerful believe to be the truth about the natural world.
- Science is socially located praxis that creates the reality it describes; it is not at all a detached description of a pre-existing reality external to its own practice. Thus, science does not just describe or unravel ‘facts’, but actually constructs them through the active, culturally and socially situated choices scientists make in the laboratory.
Sokal hoax aims to expose postmodernism
Alan Sokal, a physicist in New York university, wrote an article in 1996 entitled “Transgressing the boundaries: toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” for the postmodernist journal ‘Social Text’. The article was published in the spring/summer 1996 issue on the “Science Wars”. The article used various recent discoveries of (mainly) physics to make pseudo-profound assertions about science that any serious reader can understand it to be completely nonsense. But the article was so cunningly written by using postmodernist catchword (jargon) and by referring various postmodernist authors, the editors of the journal could not imagine that it might come from someone belonging to the opposite camp.
Sokal wrote “it has become increasingly apparent that physical “reality”, no less than social “reality” is at bottom a social and linguistic construct, that scientific “knowledge” far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it, that truth claims of science are inherently theory laden, and discourse of the scientific community.” Indeed, Postmodernists associated with the journal ‘Social Text’ were so impressed by the article that, even after Sokal revealed that it was a hoax, one of the editors, Bruce Robbins, still felt it was a serious contribution to postmodernist philosophy.
In the same year Sokal wrote another article entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: An Afterwards” where he informed that the article in the ‘Social Text’ was a hoax and it was written to expose those postmodernists thinkers who were abusing the content of many discoveries of natural sciences. The next year Sokal along with another Belgian physicist Jean Bricmont published in France a book entitled ‘Imposture Intellectuals’ where they showed that many leading postmodernist writers were spouting nonsense by using some recent discoveries of science. In 1998, the book was published in the US under the title ‘Fashionable Nonsense’.
After this incident many scientists including prominent personalities like S. Weinberg, N. D. Mermin, Meera Nanda, R. Dawkins, D. Albert, have expressed their reactions against the gibberish produced by postmodern intellectuals.
Some examples of postmodernists’ garbage from the pages of ‘Fashionable Nonsense’
We all know that the theory of relativity has changed our concept of time and space in a fundamental way. But one of the famous postmodernist Jacques Derrida, in some context, made the following comment regarding general relativity; “The Einsteinian constant is not a constant, is not center. It is the very concept of variability – it is finally, the concept of the game. In other word, it is not the concept of something – of a center starting from which an observer could master the field – but the very concept of the game.” The famous physicist Steven Weinberg in his review of Sokal’s parody made the following comment, “This is absurd – the meaning of a mathematically defined quantity like cannot be affected by the discoveries of physics, and in any case both and G continue to appear as universal constants in the equation of general relativity.” Actually, all these high-sounding words used by Derrida are meaningless jargons that neither speak science nor speak anything meaningful related to human knowledge.
No one will deny that the area of scientific research is dominated by male scientists and many scientists still hold women to be incapable of reason and this view is reflected in various ways even in scientific literature. But the postmodernists try to find the male domination in the scientific laws itself without caring whether the theory is true or false.
First, we consider an argument quoted in ‘Fashionable Nonsense’ which was put forward by one leading postmodernist named Luce Irigaray:
“Is E = mc2 a sexed equation? Perhaps it is. Let us make the hypothesis that it is in so far as it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us. What seems to me indicate the possibly sexed nature of the equation is not directly its uses by nuclear weapons, rather it is having privileged what goes the fastest.”
Sokal clearly points out by saying “Whatever one may think about the “other speeds that are vitally necessary to us” the fact remains that the relationship E = mc2 between energy (E) and mass (m) is experimentally verified to high degree of precision, and it would obviously not be valid if the speed of light (c) were replaced by another speed.”
Actually, this equation follows from the principles of relativity and corresponding modification of the concept of space and time in special theory of relativity. Actually, Einstein’s two postulates (1) equivalency of all inertial reference frames and (2) the constancy of velocity of light in vacuum inevitably changed the concept of space-time and it modified the Newtonian mechanics as well. One of the consequences of this modification is the above mass-energy equation. It tells that any given quantity of mass is equivalent to a fixed quantity of energy and vice-versa. In any reaction, if some amount of mass is destroyed equivalent amount of energy will be created and vice-versa. Though Irigaray is afraid of the sexist character of the equation as it prefers the fastest velocity (symbolizing the supremacy of male), it is to be informed that according to the conclusion of special relativity, not only any male but no massive objects in the world would be able to run with the velocity equal to the velocity of light in vacuum.
But not only here, Irigaray further discovered masculine character of physics in its neglect to fluid mechanics. One of Irigaray’s American interpreters summarizes her argument as follows:
“The privileging of solid over fluid mechanics, and indeed the inability of science to deal with turbulent flow at all, she attributes to the association of fluidity with femininity. Whereas men have sex organs that protrude and become rigid, women have openings that leak menstrual blood and vaginal fluids. …. The problem of turbulent flow cannot be solved because the conceptions of fluids (and of women) have been formulated so as necessarily to leave unarticulated remainders.”
In this case a hard fact has been presented but only to establish something vague. Sokal and Bricmont inform us in Fashionable Nonsense, “Besides, we know the equations – the so-called Navier-Stokes equations- that govern the behaviour of fluids in a vast number of situations. The main problem is that these nonlinear partial differential equations are very difficult to solve, in particular for turbulent flows.”
Every person with even little scientific knowledge will understand that liquid substance has some peculiar properties (like it takes the shape of the container in which it is kept) compared with solid and hence it is more difficult to study the motion of liquid (kind of forces acting among the molecules) because of its complex nature. Ignoring this complexity and identifying male domination as the sole cause behind the inability of developing good theory of fluid, actually belittle the importance of critically observing the really existing male domination across the society in general and in scientific domain, in particular.
Further it seems from various postmodernist writings that just to draw attention they purposefully use the male-female relation even where the analogy is completely devoid of meaning. Already we have described Irigaray. Another postmodernist Lacan after some vague discussion regarding algebra equated the erectile organ to the square root of minus one. Richard Dawkins commented in an article published in nature, “We do not need the mathematical expertise of Sokal and Bricmont to assure us that the author of this stuff is fake. …You do not have to be a physicist to smell out the daffy absurdity of this kind of argument…”
Another postmodernist thinker Latour was quoted saying, “Since a settlement of a controversy is the cause of nature’s representation, not the consequences, we can never use the outcome-Nature-to explain how and why a controversy has been settled.” This leads Latour to some funny conclusions. Sokal and Bricmont wrote;
“Latour discusses what he interprets as the discovery in 1976, by French scientists working on the mummy of the pharaoh II, that his death (circa 1213 BC) was due to tuberculosis. Latour asks: ‘How could he pass away due to bacillus discovered by Robert Koch in 1882?’ Latour notes, correctly, that it would be an anachronism to assert that Ramses II was killed by machine-gun fire or died from the stress provoked by a stock-market crash. But then Latour wonders, why isn’t death from tuberculosis likewise an anachronism? He goes so far as to assert that ‘before Koch, the bacillus has no real existence.’ He dismisses the common-sense notion that Koch discovered a pre-existing bacillus as ‘having only the appearance of common sense.’”
Here is another ambiguous statement by one Postmodernist Andrew Ross. Sokal quoted him from the pages of ‘Social Text’, “I won’t deny that there is a law of gravity. I would nevertheless argue that there are no laws of nature, there are only laws in society. Laws are things that men and women make, and that they can change.”
What does this mean? This could mean that our understanding about the behaviour of nature changes over time and accordingly there will be new laws that can reflect nature more faithfully. But that is not the case with these vulgar postmodernists. The denial of objective reality outside our consciousness is the essence. Now look at the statement closely. If he means what he says, then it would imply that the law of gravity is something we legislate and is valid as long as we say it is valid and becomes invalid when we decide otherwise. So, if we say it is no longer valid, can we then fly? When reacting to this comment, Sokal correctly asserted, “the laws of nature are not social constructions; the universe existed long before we did. Our theories about the laws of nature are social constructions. The goal of science is for the latter to approximate as closely as possible the former.”
Postmodernists are seeking not only to overthrow science but our idea of rational thinking itself. They see the modern way of reasoning in the scientific area as inherently repressive. They search for liberating sciences and put their hopes in the new sciences like chaos theory, quantum mechanics in physics and Godel’s incompleteness theorem in mathematics. They think that chaos theory (based on nonlinear mathematics) eliminates determinism from physics and its emergence represented the demise of linear mode of thought in all fields.
About chaos theory Sokal and Bricmont inform us, “There are many physical phenomena governed by deterministic laws, and therefore predictable in principle, which are nevertheless unpredictable in practice because of their sensitivity to initial condition…. These phenomena are expressed figuratively by saying that a butterfly flapping its wings today in Madagascar could provoke a hurricane three weeks from now in Florida.” So, the examples of deterministic systems with high sensitivity to initial conditions show that these two features are not contradictory, they are perfectly compatible. Actually, the ultimate paradox is that the existence of chaotic dynamical systems in facts supports universal determinism rather than contradicts it if we confine ourselves in the classical world.
While postmodernists have used chaos theory, Godel’s incompleteness theorem and quantum mechanics to establish their points, quantum mechanics needs a careful discussion as this subject (at least in its standard interpretation) contains some counterintuitive ideas hitherto absent in the subject of natural sciences.
The matter with quantum mechanics has been more complicated not only because of its some peculiar features but due to some of the statements made by the founders of the subject itself that go beyond the essence of their discoveries. For example, Heisenberg stated, “We can no longer speak of the behavior of the particle independently of the process of observation. As a final consequence, the natural laws formulated mathematically in quantum theory no longer deal with the elementary particles themselves but our knowledge of them. Nor is it any longer possible to ask whether or not these particles exist in space and time objectively…” In a similar vein, Neils Bohr commented, “An independent reality in the ordinary physical sense can…neither be ascribed to the phenomena nor to the agencies of observation.”
In particular, these ambiguous statements and various other features of quantum mechanics have been used to justify the position of Postmodernism in the following way;
- Complementarity shows that reality is composed of contradictory truths and hence no particular objective truth can be ascribed to reality.
- Uncertainty relation shows that reality itself cannot be conceived to exist.
- Quantum mechanics as a whole (specially, by its measurement postulate) shows that the reality is brought into existence and maintained by the action of consciousness.
This subject being a new development in natural science, we shall discuss it in little details for clarification in order to find the hollowness of the tricky conclusions of postmodernist thinkers.
Quantum mechanics: Laws governing the micro world
The historical origin of quantum mechanics (QM) is related with Planck’s successful theory of black body radiation. When a black body emits heat, it comprises radiation (in the form of waves) of various frequencies. The distribution of total energy (that is radiated) among the various frequencies was known from the experiments. But the problem was that the distribution could not be explained by classical theory. Max Planck showed that if one assumes that light for a given frequency is emitted not continuously but in the form of packet, then the whole thing can be explained. This packet is called quanta and its energy is proportional to the frequency of the radiation. Then total energy of a given frequency of radiation is nothing but total no. of packets of that frequency that have been radiated. Later Einstein showed that this is indeed the case and not only in emission but when light is absorbed, it is absorbed in the form of packet. Using it he could explain the photo electric effect for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize. So, what is established by these discoveries is that light has particle character (property of being localized in a place). But does it mean that light does not possess wave character (property of spreading everywhere)? No, the wave property of light has been confirmed by Young’s interference experiment in 1801. But thing did not stop here. In some experiments subatomic particle showed wave character in terms of interference. In this way the mechanical separation between two opposed properties gets blurred where earlier it was thought that particle is particle and wave is wave and one mutually excludes the other. In such a situation, when the old physics could not capture this new truth within its fold, the necessity of some new formalism arose that could absorb these features of subatomic world in its new axioms. This compulsion gave birth to the new subject called quantum mechanics.
Naturally, in this new subject of quantum mechanics, many old concepts had to be given up. In earlier mechanics, the state of a particle would mean definite values of its position and momentum at a definite moment and values of other dynamical variables can be calculated from them and these values are revealed in measurement. But in quantum mechanics, the state has to be described in terms of a wave function (an abstract mathematical object called vector in Hilbert space) and this function keeps all the information about the particle that nature permits. Then one can obviously ask; what about the value of position and momentum of the particle at a given moment. Quantum mechanical state does not answer this question (if it could be answered then it would be reduced to classical mechanics). Some interesting features of quantum mechanics can be stated in the following way;
- The state in quantum mechanics does not provide prior values for dynamical variables that would be revealed in future measurement. The state in quantum mechanics encapsulates the probabilities of various possible results of a measurement that can be performed in future. Hence once the state is fixed, these probabilities are also fixed.
- Position and momentum are incompatible which means they cannot be simultaneously measured. Heisenberg uncertainty principles tells that if the position and momentum measurements are made imprecise then joint measurement can be performed if the imprecision goes beyond a certain limit.
- The wave property and particle property of a micro particle cannot be verified simultaneously. Arrangement for measuring one excludes the arrangement for measuring the other. This is the essence of Bohr’s complementarity principle.
- If for a given state, result of position measurement can be more precisely determined (probability close to one), then the result of momentum measurement becomes very uncertain and vice-versa. This is the essence of (preparation) uncertainty relation of Heisenberg presented in various text books of QM.
- Quantum dynamics incorporates both determinism and indeterminism. A quantum system, when left to itself, the state evolves deterministically but whenever there is a measurement performed on the system, the state suddenly jumps to new state which is termed as collapse of the wave function.
Still one can assert that it may be the case that individual particle possesses definite values for position and momentum, but quantum state (as it describes the statistics of measurement result) cannot capture that element of reality for the individual particle. Many physicists including Einstein used to think that quantum mechanics, though consistent, is incomplete and there must be an underlying complete theory to be discovered in future that will reduce present form of quantum theory to be a statistical theory. But later discoveries have shown that even if one assumes the existence of such complete theory (individual particle possessing definite value for position, momentum, spin etc. measurement only reveal those pre-existing values), then the statistics calculated for composite system (system comprising two or more subsystems) based on such a theory which is further consistent with relativity principle i.e., local, will be different from that of quantum mechanics (Bell theorem, 1964). The statistics obtained from experimental results, found from 1980’s onwards, support the results of quantum mechanics implying that quantum mechanics is in contradiction with any local realistic theory including classical one.
Do all these things in quantum mechanics at all support the concept that reality is created by observer’s consciousness? Here of course there is uncertainty and hence the result of every measurement is not predetermined (unlike what happens in classical mechanics) but one can calculate the probabilities of various possible results (which are pre-determined) and it has nothing to do with human will. Here values of dynamical variables are not objective but wave functions are objective that encapsulate the probabilities of measurement results. Very recently, it has been proved that wave functions are indeed objective. On the other hand, the uncertainty in quantum mechanics is a predictive law about the behaviour of concrete phenomena that can be tested and confirmed like other physical principles. The quantum probabilities cannot be reduced to subjective probabilities (measuring ignorance) as happened in classical statistical theory. One only should be careful that the quality of objective truth that exists independent of human will in the subatomic world is not same as that in classical world.
Mechanical materialism: Inadequate to incorporate QM
Quantum mechanics of course rejects the concept of mechanical materialism which follows a rigid logic and rejects mutually exclusive trends in a single object. Quantum mechanics shows that mutually exclusive properties like wave nature and particle nature can reside in a single entity like photon or electron. So, the material entity can manifest itself sometime as particle, sometime as wave depending on the experimental arrangement but not both at the same time (complementarity). Some people are afraid that this could be a manifestation of denial of objective reality but it is not. Same kind of confusion occurred among some philosophers when Einstein provided his mass-energy equation.
Einstein’s theory of relativity showed that mass can be transformed into energy and vice-versa which established that energy and mass are different forms of matter and one form may transform into another. This discovery was interpreted by some idealist philosophers that ‘matter has disappeared’. But careful analysis of Einstein’s mass-energy relation does not allow drawing such conclusion. Here one confuses the matter as a philosophical category, with mass, a scientific category representing a physical property of matter. The philosophical concept of matter reflects only one property, objectivity, i.e., the capacity to exist independently of our consciousness. Mass and energy both are physical properties, where mass is the measure of inertia and energy is common measure of various kinds of motion of matter. In Einstein’s equation, the point concerns mass, not matter. Therefore, transformation of mass into energy does not imply that matter (a philosophical category) can vanish; the equation is an expression only of the quantitative relation of mass and energy.
Similarly, some people think that existence of material particle necessarily implies that it will have definite position and momentum. But existence of reality, independent of our consciousness, is a philosophical statement about the world and this reality should not be confused with some concrete property of matter (scientific category), discovered at some particular historical stage. Identifying the objective existence of a material particle with the existence of definite value of position and momentum for the particle is a feature of classical physics but one may have to give it up in face of new condition created first by new empirical results and then by its rational development to a new discipline namely quantum mechanics.
Essentially old wine in new bottle
The general claim of the postmodernists is not something new. The essence of their thinking had appeared long back through various idealist philosophies. The more recent trend which maintained this kind of thinking is positivism. The first major contribution of the Vienna school was the construction of the philosophy of positivism, largely due to Mach, which asserted that science was simply the most convenient mode of arranging sense impressions, and that any discussion of the real material world independent of our consciousness was pure and useless metaphysics. But the essence of this world outlook was first propounded by an idealist philosopher Berkley in more clear terms.
The old materialism maintained;
- That the ‘immediate objects’ of knowledge are our own ideas based on sensations.
- These ideas are produced by the action upon us of external material things, and that at least our ideas of primary qualities are copies of the qualities of external bodies.
Berkley accepted the first proposition (a), and then set out to prove that the materialist addition (b) was absurd. Once Berkley’s position is accepted, the correspondence between knowledge and external objects does not arise. Whatever new terms are used by Mach and others; the essence remains same as in Berkley’s idea. Though positivism appeared in the first place in the field of natural sciences, its implication was not limited in this field only. It marked a general retreat or withdrawal of intellectuals from concrete to abstract problems and from naturalistic to formal approach. The essence of this approach was a reluctance to face real social facts. Behind this there were real material conditions that developed at that time in society. Social facts were becoming increasingly hard for bourgeois intellectuals to face.
Interestingly if one filter the essence of postmodernism from its diverse manifestations, one sees that here also the denial of identity between knowledge and external world is their central point. But postmodernists have cleverly used some new discoveries of natural sciences and interpret them in their own way to establish their points. Old materialism, which is incapable of accommodating opposite trends in a single object (dialectics), cannot be a strong weapon to fight out the idealism of postmodernists.
Moreover, the denial of objectivity to scientific discoveries by postmodernists has been conducive to propagation of unscientific beliefs adopted by various ‘Hindu right wing’ groups prevalent in India. The established scientific theories like ‘Darwin’s theory of evolution’ are identified with the hegemonic ‘western culture’ and in opposition to this hegemony they propagate vague history regarding scientific discoveries in ancient India. One such example is claiming discovery of airplane in India in 7000 BC in a Science Congress held in Mumbai in 2015 in the presence of some cabinet ministers. Let alone discovery of airplane, the scientific community did not discover any civilization around that time. If all the beliefs are to be given equal importance, then fighting against all these heinous trends will be identified as oppressive by postmodernists. Moreover, it is to be informed that these ‘Hindu right wing’ groups have been dominant social and political forces for some time and they have been continuously attacking religious minorities, lower caste people, scientific minded academicians, democratic personalities and have been continuously trying to weaken scientific culture for past few years. In this way they have been also trying to silence all the struggle against imperialist plunders of the cheap labour and natural resources of the country that have increased manifold in the period of globalization.
Sokal and Bricmont defends materialism of the enlightenment era
The materialistic philosophy that was born during enlightenment in Europe, though progressive in its own time, is not the highest form of materialism. The enlightenment refers to the philosophical and the intellectual development in Europe of the 17th and 18th centuries. Enlightenment philosophers of the 18th century struggled to subject all the despotic and backward institutions of that time to the acid test of reason. This struggle helped break through the medieval and religious rubbish that crippled development of productive force and human thought for past few centuries.
If one looks from the class perspective, one sees that this materialist philosophy served the interest of capitalist class (then a progressive social group oppressed by feudalism) by throwing feudal establishment and in this way establishing capitalist relation in society which again served for the further development of science as well as for the further development of productive force of the society.
Sokal and Bricmont through all their arguments have defended materialism in its most general form concerning the existence of external world and the ability of human thought to increasingly comprehend it. But the truth is that not all the enlightenment figures were thoroughly materialist and most importantly materialists of enlightenment were limited in their outlook.
- It seeks to reduce all processes to the same cycle of mechanistic interactions and so cannot account for development, for the emergence of new qualities (like evolution in animal kingdom) and new types of processes of nature.
- It cannot account for social development, nor can it give any account of human social activity and finally leads to an abstract conception of human nature.
- It propounds the existence of absolute truth and maintains that human being can comprehend this truth by using the power of reasons. It holds that source of true knowledge is reason or abstract thought.
Sokal and Bricmont, being adherent follower of old materialism, cannot accept the existence of opposite properties in a single entity. In Fashionable Nonsense, they write, “For example, a sociologist friend asked us, not unreasonably: Isn’t it contradictory for quantum mechanics to exhibit both ‘discontinuity’ and ‘interconnectedness’? Aren’t these properties opposites? The brief answer is that these properties characterize quantum mechanics in very specific senses—which require a mathematical knowledge of the theory to be properly understood—and that, in these senses, the two notions do not contradict one another.”
But in quantum mechanics how one can avoid the existence of contradictory aspects like wave property and particle property, determinism and randomness (associated with quantum measurement) for the same subatomic particles. These are supported by experimental facts. Quantum mechanics did not introduce contradictory aspect rather the empirical findings (like double slit experiment) forced the physicists to construct the subject in such a way that it can accommodate these contradictory aspects.
Sokal and Bricmont need not be afraid of contradiction in matter. Not only in quantum mechanics, contradiction as a philosophical category, exists in every process either social or natural. For example, in capitalist society the interests of proletariat and bourgeoisie are in contradiction with each other, but this fact neither establishes that proletariat and bourgeoisie as a class don’t exist, nor that capitalism doesn’t exist as a single social system.
As Joseph Green points out that the contradiction (in natural science) is not something which is to be driven out by mathematical formulation. It is a powerful philosophical category by which one can understand things in their motion and hence can appreciate the possible transformations that things may undergo in future. The existence of contradictory aspects in subatomic particles is not something passive (waiting to be driven out by proper mathematical formulation) but has useful application. Actually, various recent discoveries in quantum information processing including quantum cryptography (whose security is established from quantum laws) have been made by constructively exploiting the above contradictory aspects of quantum mechanics.
Dialectical materialism: Higher development of materialistic philosophy
After the working class became an independent force in the capitalist society in the middle of nineteenth century, there was another revolution in the philosophical outlook of materialism. This was discovered by Marx and Engels and it is known as ‘dialectical materialism’. New discoveries in various disciplines of science and increased empirical knowledge about society created the material basis for developing the materialist outlook further. But the capitalist class after establishing its safe rule became conservative even in the struggle for further democratization of society by destroying the remnants of feudal values and practices. In this context the rein of democratic movement went to the hand of the proletariat class who can survive only by selling their labour power and has nothing to lose. So, this class became the leading social force which has the potential of developing the philosophy further by accommodating all the new truths that were being established in various disciplines. The dialectical materialism, that was discovered, apart from holding the basic propositions of materialism contains the followings:
- Matter is always in motion. There can be no matter without motion. Motion is the mode of existence of matter.
- The driving force of this motion of matter is generated within the material process itself. The source of this driving force is the inner contradiction i.e., the struggle between opposites or conflicting tendencies, which are in operation in every process of nature and society. In simple words ‘development’ is the struggle of opposites.
Regarding the relation between external world and knowledge, it asserts that
- The source of knowledge is human practice.
- Rational knowledge is higher form of knowledge distilled from scattered empirical knowledge achieved through human practice. Human thinking plays (by using the existing category of reasons) the central (active) role in the motion from empirical knowledge to rational knowledge.
- The truth of rational knowledge, thus formed, cannot be verified by further reasoning. It has again to be verified in higher practice which either establishes the truth of the rational knowledge (at least for the time being) or falsity of it. The other possibility is that the knowledge is partially correct and needs modification.
Dialectical materialism agrees that the subjective influence like social values, conventions and class-influenced outlook and methods can and do distort perceptions of the actual truth of things and when doing sociology of science, it is important to recognize and identify these subjective distortions. But this in no way establishes that knowledge has no correlation with objective truth. Knowledge, in general, is relative due to objective historical limitations and hence there is no final truth. That’s why (rational) knowledge goes from lower to higher as time progresses. But at particular instance knowledge, verified in practice, has also an aspect of absoluteness as it cannot be compared with some ‘other knowledge’ achieved by some other method than one suggested in dialectical materialism.
On the basis of dialectical materialism, Karl Marx, for the first time, could analyze the actual production relation of capitalism that is working behind the market and could expose its inherent contradiction that inevitably would lead it to being a fetter to further development of productive force of the society. He also discovered the historical process by which the capitalist system can be abolished by establishing the dictatorship of the working class, a transitional society that would create conditions for establishing the classless society. This transitional society namely ‘socialism’ was established first in Russia and then in China but in the fierce class struggle between working class and capitalist class in the transitional society, the capitalist class had been able to defeat the working class and turned socialism back to capitalism in both the countries. But this defeat in no way, invalidate Marx’s theory of revolution as capitalism cannot get rid of the inherent contradiction that continually pushes the working people towards making social revolution as it did in the past. Moreover, with the experiment of establishing socialism Lenin and Mao Tse Tung had further developed the understanding of dialectical materialism along with the understanding of the science of contradiction and class struggle in socialism.
The idealist philosophy has survived till date though there had been great advancement in natural sciences specially, in 20th Century. In particular, development of postmodern thought in the second half of 20th Century shows that idealist philosophy does not linearly decline with progress of natural science. Rather, as long as class society survives, the idealist philosophy keeps appearing with its various forms and always to be promoted by the existing ruling class. Postmodern thought is one of such jargon which is exclusively idealistic though, surprisingly it arose first among the left intellectuals of the west out of pessimism created in a situation where revisionists have weakened the labor movement and capitalist roaders captured the power in Soviet Union and turned it into an imperialistic power. In this overall background of pessimism, the ground for such philosophy has been even more fertile with a rather optimistic view of capitalist prosperity that was in view for some time in developed countries after second world-war. As Wood observed the postmodernist worldview imbued with the terms like ‘language’, ‘discourse’ and ‘culture’ was rooted in the golden age of capitalism with the dominance of consumerism, the multiplicity of consumption patterns and proliferation of life styles.
Today we are living in a world where monopoly finance capital rules every aspect of social life. The reality that is created by this system is horrendous. On one hand the huge achievements of sciences have created the possibility to satisfy all the basic requirements of the people of the globe and on the other hand, the free-market system propounded by various imperialistic organization like International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Trade Organization are creating the worst (economic and social) situation among the vast masses of the poor of the backward countries. Then who would be afraid to see the reality as it is? Of course, those who want to control the planet by the power of their capital. So, whatever the postmodernists think about their so-called revolutionary ideas, their views ultimately serve the interest of the miniscule powerful groups in some or other way. This powerful group has a universal programme (free market with enormous political and military power) of exploiting the people over the globe and hence they abhor any other universal programme (for creating an egalitarian society) which exclude their mode of operation.
In the face of such savage attack on working people in the period of globalization, postmodernism discourages any kind of united opposition as in their opinion there is no unified system to be opposed. In particular, Foucault was categorical in believing that there is no one source of power like the state or political economy. Power is manifested in each context like regulation of sex, production system etc. without any necessary correlation among them. As there is no point of origin where the wielding of power starts from, there is no point of pressure at which resistance could be organized. Each discourse of power produced its own point of tension and conflict and resistance could only be multiple, local and transitory. Even they dilute the concept of resistance itself when they say that power is everywhere and hence there is no place where resistance can be distinguished from power itself. In their opinion, what is resistance is in reality another kind of power which is again a kind of oppression.
Whatever postmodernist revolution means, in practice, postmodernist thinking has been conducive to proliferation of numerous Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) in backward countries mainly funded by various imperialist institutions. These NGOs when working on some local problems discourage people to get at the root of the various oppressive powers and in this way work in favour of the imperialist finance capital by obscuring the fact that it, in some or other way, encourages every possible reactionary force in various corners of the world for its own survival.
Postmodernists have no weapon to fight dialectical materialism apart from making some general assertions of their own choice. And they do it. They reject any grand narrative or theory of universal nature as it, according to their opinion, is oppressive towards local knowledge without exception. But whatever the postmodernists think the world capitalist system specially, in the period of globalization, is vehemently approaching towards its further moribund condition, towards faster decay by developing parasitism to its extreme. In such situation working people of the world would not sit idle by the advices of postmodernists but will get more and more unified through their struggles against these reactionary ruling elites. And at present whatever economic, political and military strength these ruling elites accumulate, whatever wretched conditions it creates for working people, the materialistic conception of history teaches us that this moribund system along with all its idealist philosophies is bound to find its final place in some future museum.
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