human beings, human limits
(The video above in part inspired me to write this post. I’m including it for context. This isn’t intended as an indictment of either Wilkinson or Yudkowsky, although I do think that Yudkowsky, it’s safe to say, is a proponent of the faith in reason that I’m reacting to.)
A question that often occurs to those of us who are concerned with what is clumsily referred to as “the postmodern” is how the hell anyone is actually taught about or exposed to this stuff at all. After all, postmodernism has been since its inception a target for criticism that is frankly astounding in its vitriol. Even at its most influential, postmodern thought was confronted by a fierce opposition, derided as the utter corrosion of Western civilization, nihilism in other clothes, an open door of relativism for evil to walk through…. At its most vital and active, this tradition’s converts and believers represented a tiny fraction of intellectuals and academics. The postmodern could count at its height only a few tiny journals within its influence. The postmodern tradition, when restricted to a vigorous definition of the term, has really only ever been the interest of a small number of artists and thinkers. When Alan Sokal wrote Fashionable Nonsense, the title itself was a lie; postmodernism, in the late 90s, was most certainly not “fashionable”. (It was certainly less fashionable than self-aggrandizing stunts by minor academics.)
So how is it that such a thing as the postmodern remains? How is it that your average undergrad might learn the term “antifoundational” and read a bit about it? Why do those of us who find use in a tradition that questions the legitimacy of reason persist?
We persist because the opposition has been incredibly long on “it is bad”s and very short on “it is untrue”s. The number of swipes and sneers against the postmodern is huge; the number of explicitly formulated arguments, much smaller. Not to say that there haven’t been rigorous, good-faith attempts to debate the postmodern and antifoundationalism. There certainly have been. They haven’t, in my opinion, adequately confronted the questions posed in the postmodern critique. There are very good reasons for this difficulty: it’s hard or impossible to get outside of language; we seem to perceive the world through an intermediary called consciousness; belief in evolution makes it extremely unlikely that this consciousness system has anything approaching an accurate or complete grasp on the world “out there”. I’m neither scholar or philosopher enough to tell you if either postmodernism, broadly defined, or its cousin antifoundationalism, have been argued against with sufficient clarity and strength to seriously undermine their project. What I can tell you is that there hasn’t been any magic bullet arguments found that decisively eliminate postmodern question to our satisfaction.
One thing I am fairly certain of is that the value of the argumentation disputing the questions of postmodernism are insufficient to support the level of vitriol and dismissiveness that is directed towards them. One of the ironies about the discussion of postmodernism and antifoundationalism is the fact that they are so often criticized because of the effects of what it would mean for them to be true, rather than for being untrue. Postmodern belief is considered to carry with it all sorts of dangerous consequences, ideas which erode justice, social values, community, capital-T Truth…. This is ironic because these are statements of pragmatics, not of truth; and it is the critic of postmodernism who values appeals to truth and derides appeals to pragmatics. The failing of the postmodern man, according to the traditionalist, is that he can make no claims about truth. But when confronting the corrosive force of postmodernism, very often he turns to the exact same claims of “fit” or “use” that the postmodern man privileges.
Arguments towards pragmatics, at least, are arguments. Too often, no attempt at an argument is even made when dismissing the postmodern. There is an awful lot of hand-waving, an awful lot of casual mockery, that seems to rest on the assumption that, somewhere, someone has put a nail in the coffin of the postmodern question. As to what that killer disqualifying argument actually is, there is generally silence. Many people in many intellectual traditions are frustrated by those who dismiss those traditions believing that there is some lattice of previously argued insight that disqualify them. I’m afraid I probably make similar claims myself. And this tendency comes along with just plain old argument-by-assertion, the simple kind, where someone can just assert that there are the way things are, and that the postmodern question is wrong, and that any man four-square can see the world as it really is…. That, or to call something “bullshit”, imagining that there isn’t a world of question-begging going into that word, or into the assertion that one “knows it when he sees it”. Many have mocked the circular logic inherent in the Ayn Rand Objectivist line about the way the world really is, or about the question-begging inherent in merely choosing the term “Objectivist”. But I’ve always sort of admired the honesty of that kind of bald argument-by-assertion. At least it’s argument-by-assertion that knows its got nothing but force of personality behind it.
Ultimately, though, the postmodern question has the advantage of not having to be “true” in order to be of value to us. You don’t have to be sold on the inescapability of language games to think that both our claims about the power of reason generally and the extent of our grasp on reason as it stands now are wildly inflated. You don’t have to believe that truths are socially generated conventions to think that we should pause whenever we become too assured that we know the truth of things. You don’t have to think, as I do, that preference for evolution over creationism makes scientific certitude nonsensical to believe that there are limits to human cognition and to the ability of any or all of us to understand the world. Humility is the most indispensible of all intellectual qualities; that’s a lesson that I, unfortunately, seem to have to be reminded of again and again. The foundation of knowledge is the statement “I do not know.” If there’s anything that the Great Electronic Pissing Contest that is the Internet could benefit from, it’s from a more frequent and vigorous application of the idea that we are all ultimately very limited in our intellectual abilities. Doubt in the power of the human enterprise is a position which generates few negative consequences and very many positive ones.
During my slow slide away from belief into my present atheism of absence, I was moved by the line of Hardy’s: “After two thousand years of mass/we got as far as poisoned gas.” Now I wish we could have a similar recognition of the fact that many hundreds of years of the scientific method have indeed brought us abundance and safety, but plenty of destruction as well, and for all of the assertion of both the power of cold rationality and the supremacy of the capitalist model, the two have combined to leave billions hungry, destitute and hopeless. Religion, for as much as it was once the chief system for asserting control, superiority and the infallibility of its adherent’s beliefs– a mantle now taken over by a new, very differently aligned generation– has at least had, in most denominations and varieties, and emphasis on humility and charity, rare and wonderful qualities. (I must point out that these are also qualities that have long been espoused by various clergy but very rarely embodied by them.)
People are very, very attached to the idea that they know and understand everything, or, if not, that they know how to go about knowing everything, which is really the same thing. The postmodern and the antifoundational are instruments useful in opposing this overreach, and the assertion of control that is the inevitable consequence of it. The point has never been irrationalism or opposition to science, only to be saved from men who know everything, and who most of all know that they know more than you. That’s a notion as destructive as it is anti-democratic, and I oppose it with the only tools I’ve ever needed– silence, exile, cunning….