Daniel Dennett on Postmodernism

I was perusing some links on philosophy of science when I came across this piece by Daniel C. Dennett. Here is an excerpt.

When I was a young untenured professor of philosophy, I once received a visit from a colleague from the Comparative Literature Department, an eminent and fashionable literary theorist, who wanted some help from me. I was flattered to be asked, and did my best to oblige, but the drift of his questions about various philosophical topics was strangely perplexing to me. For quite a while we were getting nowhere, until finally he managed to make clear to me what he had come for. He wanted "an epistemology," he said. An epistemology. Every self-respecting literary theorist had to sport an epistemology that season, it seems, and without one he felt naked, so he had come to me for an epistemology to wear--it was the very next fashion, he was sure, and he wanted the dernier cri in epistemologies. It didn't matter to him that it be sound, or defensible, or (as one might as well say) true; it just had to be new and different and stylish. Accessorize, my good fellow, or be overlooked at the party.

At that moment I perceived a gulf between us that I had only dimly seen before. It struck me at first as simply the gulf between being serious and being frivolous. But that initial surge of self-righteousness on my part was, in fact, a naive reaction. My sense of outrage, my sense that my time had been wasted by this man's bizarre project, was in its own way as unsophisticated as the reaction of the first-time theater-goer who leaps on the stage to protect the heroine from the villain. "Don't you understand?" we ask incredulously. "It's make believe. It's art. It isn't supposed to be taken literally!" Put in that context, perhaps this man's quest was not so disreputable after all. I would not have been offended, would I, if a colleague in the Drama Department had come by and asked if he could borrow a few yards of my books to put on the shelves of the set for his production of Tom Stoppard's play, Jumpers. What if anything would be wrong in outfitting this fellow with a snazzy set of outrageous epistemological doctrines with which he could titillate or confound his colleagues?

What would be wrong would be that since this man didn't acknowledge the gulf, didn't even recognize that it existed, my acquiescence in his shopping spree would have contributed to the debasement of a precious commodity, the erosion of a valuable distinction. Many people, including both onlookers and participants, don't see this gulf, or actively deny its existence, and therein lies the problem. The sad fact is that in some intellectual circles, inhabited by some of our more advanced thinkers in the arts and humanities, this attitude passes as a sophisticated appreciation of the futility of proof and the relativity of all knowledge claims. In fact this opinion, far from being sophisticated, is the height of sheltered naivete, made possible only by flatfooted ignorance of the proven methods of scientific truth-seeking and their power. Like many another naif, these thinkers, reflecting on the manifest inability of their methods of truth-seeking to achieve stable and valuable results, innocently generalize from their own cases and conclude that nobody else knows how to discover the truth either.

This reminds me of a time I encountered an astronomer via a listserv who argued (and attempted to speak for all scientists in saying) that "as scientists we do not claim that some objective reality exists independent of ourselves." This caused me to wonder what he believed he was looking at through his telescope and whether or not he believed these same objects existed when he looked the other way.

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I loved that article the

I loved that article the first time I came across it, especially the "virus" metaphor in the beginning. I think postmodernists and fellow travelers have made some valid criticisms of the rigid demarcations between science and non-science believed to exist by logical positivists like Popper and Ayer. But they go to far when they claim that all forms of inquiry are equally valid, or that there is no such thing as objective reality, i.e. there is no such thing as a single "Truth" which exists apart from our subjective beliefs about the world. Dennett is the kind of philosopher who strikes a healthy balance between these two opposing camps.

Micha, Karl Popper advocated

Karl Popper advocated critical rationalism.

Ack, your right BilLee. I

Ack, your right BilLee. I was lumping Popper in with the the logical positivists in what is now sometimes refered to as the science wars. This ignores the fact that Popper himself made important criticisms of logical positivism. Thanks for the correction.

The astronomer is being

The astronomer is being silly. It certainly can't be proven that an objective reality exists independent of ourselves, but it is a necessary axiom of empirical science.

If no independent reality exists, then both falsifiability and repeat testing are worthless, because none of us are necessarily looking at the same thing. In addition, any patterns we thought we'd found would be subject to change at any point without notice.

The post-modernists cannot

The post-modernists cannot quite be dismissed so easily. They are right to denounce the authority that science claims for itself since there is no 'proof'. This is precisely what Popper argued, that proven certainty is unattainable and that no method exists to lend even the tiniest modicum of support for any theory. In this he agrees with the post-modernists. However Popper does argue, contra the post-modernists, that objective truth exists and indeed can be found, not by the false authoritarianism of validation and justification but by the open enquiry of conjecture and refutation.

This is an amazing achievement and insight the radical brilliance of which is sadly too often misunderstood or ignored.