Post-modernism Today

A Brief Introduction



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Post-Modern Negative Impact On The

Study Of Science

Post-modernism has left its extremely narrow, irrational, parochial impact on the question of studying modern science. The scientific tradition of thinking about the coinciding of reality and truth is challenged. The set of doctrines often referred to as ‘social construction of science’ or ‘sociology of scientific knowledge’ claims that like any other way of knowing, scientific methods are wholly relative to a theoretical framework and a world-view: we know what we ourselves construct and there can be no justification that our constructs can progressively come to map the world as it really is. Thus truth is a matter of how we "garland consensus with authority."[David Bloor, "Knowledge and Social Imagery", Chicago, p.42 Quoted in Meera Nanda, ‘Restoring the Real : Rethinking Social Constructivist Theories of Science, In Socialist Register, 1997, K.P.Bagchi & Co., Calcutta, 1997, p. 302] By this, facts once seen as due to the world’s own determination are instead seen as projections upon a much thinner world by the cultural practices of communities of inquirers. This way culture and power get a privileged position over each and every scientific enquiry. Meera Nanda has summed up such views from writings of various authors, which can be paraphrased as (1) 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. (2) 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. (3) Such theories admit of no analytical distinctions between knowledge and society, the cognitive dimension and the socio-cultural dimension: people’s knowledge of the world and their organisation of life in the world constitute each other, the two are ‘co-produced’. With such views theorists "tend to deny any meaningful distinction between what is inside and outside of science and between things natural and social."[Meera Nanda, Ibid p. 303] Many post-modernists/ post-colonial critics of modern science consider that the challenge to the traditional order being armed with "Western Science" is an act of conspiracy against the local tradition. They consider such rational, scientific minded people as "internal colonizers" bringing the diverse local narratives under the sway of a Eurocentric meta-narrative. Foucault, Rorty, et al guide them to reject such efforts. This approach is basically premised on the post-modernist concept of discursive knowledge, power and inaccessibility of reality. The concentrated expression of this Post-modern view has been projected by Alan Sokal, a theoretical physicist at New York University, who strung together the statements of post-modern theorists like Derrida, Lacan, Leotard et al to declare how Post-modern social theory has shown that, the reality physicists study is a social and linguistic construct.[Meera Nanda, Ibid. Foot note, p.346]

Under the post-modernist influence this extreme view in the name of "social construction of science" or "sociology of scientific knowledge" denies that scientific facts have any necessary relation to casual processes and theoretical entities, which they claim to describe. This new breed of theorists regards science as mere construction but not a discovery of reality. Thus our knowledge is said to be our own construction and so fails to present the reality itself. Post-modernism/Post-Structuralism dismisses truth and sermonises that truth is nothing but our acceptance of it with authority.

It goes without saying that science has been often misused and scientists have shown biases and material interests to impose the existing social order upon the order of nature. This is some scientists’ bid for naturalization of an unequal order. Recent history testifies to the abominable fact how the majority of U.S. physicists were pressed into service for the gargantuan programme of Star Wars in the 1980s. It is a fact that in the name of research and development millions of dollars have been spent in the USA alone and huge amount of it has gone towards building up sophisticated lethal weapons. Also in the field of medical sciences, notwithstanding its big advances, it has been vulgarised and debased due to the maniacal drive for profits, creating an atmosphere amongst the post-modernists to negate allopathy totally — taking the idealisation of herbal treatment to extreme levels. It was in Mao’s China where aq more rational approach was adopted of combining the two — i.e. using the best in allopathy, together with maximum efforts to advance indigenous remedies.

So, the question comes up whether we can dismiss or impute an absolutely negative role to science and that scientists always and on all occasions working at the diktat of the powers that be. When Bernal writes that under colonial rule Indian scientists must "be subjected to the patronizing and insulting habits of the English to their subject races" [J.D.Bernal, The Social Function of Science, Routlegdge, London, 1939, p.208] should we not invariably consider the scientific space created outside and against the hassles and impediments under the imperialist system had a different role. It was definitely difficult but was presumably natural to develop dialectical opposition to colonial science.

India has a long tradition in medical science. Ancient tribes invented the primary method of alleviation of various maladies obviously through exclusive experiment towards a scientific way of treatment. The archaeology of medicines that we inherit from the past does not necessarily justify the Foucaultian concept of power always at work towards scientific researches whatever may be their level. Traditional medicines, written and unwritten, have a very long history. The use of neem, turmeric and numerous things as medicines has a very very long history in India, originating at a time even remotely can be conceivable as evolved in the arenas of powers. What is very much known that practising medical men or researchers on human body were looked down upon by the Brahministic big and small rulers in India. The great pioneer in the medical science in Europe, Hypocrat had to practise steathily lest he should pollute others and draw the ire of the controllers of society. The examples are cited in order to refute the claim of Post-Modernism/ Post-Structuralism that science is always a tool in the hands of the powers that be.

Under the British colonial system there always remained a dilemma, western science was introduced without any distinct science policy along with structural limitations for research and development. The British Govt. sponsored science for the very reason of its existence; geography, geology, botany, zoology, archaeology, medicine and even astronomy were introduced primarily on the grounds of political and commercial gains.[R.K.Kochhar, Science as a Tool in British India, EPW, August, 1993] To combat the shameless apathy of the imperialist rulers towards scientific education, Indian scientists’ inventions in various fields was a certain amount of defiance. But in general what was transplanted in Indian society as science was not for the indigenous social needs but for imperialism itself. Yet one can not dismiss J.C.Bose’s contributions in the field of science and its popularization against enforced difficulties under the colonial regime. Against colonial science there emerged a counter trend. One historian recorded the role of a pioneer of technology in 19th century Bengal, Sitanath Ghosh for his invention of the cotton spindle of a new type, an air-pump, a power loom, a weaving machine, a wheat pounding mill, a mechanical plough, etc. Those inventions, however, were not produced on a commercial scale.[Chittabrata Palit, "Sitanath Ghosh the Forgotten Pioneer of Technology in Bengal", In Science, Technology, Medicine And Environment In India, (eds) Chittabrata Palit, Amit Bhattacharya, Bibhasa, Calcutta, 1988 pp. 89-98]

While denouncing positivism Bernal attempted to present a social responsibility to the scientists. He was also hopeful that an appreciation of historical relation of science and society by the scientists would make it possible for them to counter the efforts of those who misuse science.

Natural philosophy fragmented into separate domains of enquiry like natural and human science only in the 17th century. And only at this crucial period science assumed an independent status. With the emergence of capitalist society, the increasing connection between science and the production process and research through funding science, a tendency becomes clear: science is used for profits and fabrication. And designing tools of Drawin, Newton, Faraday, et al, were driven by the internal momentum of science getting inspired from within the tradition of science itself. It is scientists’ motivation to fathom how nature works and how to do things more and more easily. And the long technical tradition is nurtured by the scientific tradition. But we cannot but admit that the most flourishing period of science coexists with flourishing economic activities and technical advance.

Marxism strongly refutes the sweeping conclusion of this idealist doctrine that there is always a merging and mutual constitution of the social order and the order of knowledge. If it is accepted that the content of natural sciences is not merely conditioned but constituted by the culturally endorsed social practices, the entire scientific knowledge turns into a matter of prevailing and ever changing conventions. Then there remains no necessary relation with the natural order, nor the critical relation with the social order. When this extremely idealist doctrine dishes out the view that reality is nothing but a constructed image, we are then left with no way out of this created image to verify our findings and beliefs in relation to the objective reality. Also if it is taken for granted that all rational views and practices work within the four walls of the power nexus and inevitable biases then we are reduced to mere programmed robots which always fail to do creative work or get at the objective reality.

It is a fact that sometimes what is passed for truth is created by the powers that be with definite interests, but these Foucault followers go to extremes by declaring that truth is always and on all occasions is the creation of power. They reject the possibility of forming knowledge transcending the barriers imposed by culture, local contexts and power. Such orthodox doctrines in the Post-modernist heritage, would then dismiss the possibility of People’s Science movements being carried on by various organisations in India and other countries making the people aware of irrational ideas and practices rooted in societies and the possibility of overhauling the system of exploitation being armed with the findings of science. It must be kept in mind that people, freed of superstitions and abominable practices, and the organisations working at the grass roots with rational, scientific consciousness are the actual force to expose the anti-social scientists power-broker nexus against human civilization itself.

Simultaneously it is absolutely wrong to reject forever and for all times scientific findings that have any inherent scope and possibility of universal application. If the USA and some other powers showing off their infinite arrogance and possessiveness to declare ban on the acquisition of atomic knowledge developed by physicists in other countries is blown-up to equate with all instances of scientific findings, then we have to reject every invention of science as anti-people. History, however, testifies to the universality of scientific findings in numberless instances. Those hypocritical critics of science try to project themselves as truly opposed to western imperialism by equating the whole of modern science coming from Europe as a sign of western imperialistic domination. This sermonisation is also a narrow, reductionist notion conveniently evading to discriminate between the elements of domination and the contributions of science to people’s life. They also reject the possibility of "Trans cultural appropriation of the methods, theories and world view of modern science" Scientific knowledge proceeds through continuous self-correction in the light of fresh findings from the natural order. But those so-called pundits hold that the evidence from nature can never be free from contextual values and the scientists’ cultural moorings. The ever-changing scientific theories and rival theories in similar contextual and cultural situations substantially belie such fixed and extremely irrational ideas. We do not dismiss the fact that cultural meanings and social power play an important role even in the field of science. But we reject such views that scientific rationality is solely or ultimately decided by them and that all the reality we can ever really reach is the reality that is internal to our system of representation in the Post-modernist/post-structuralist sense. Thus in that sense such representations are merely our constituted reality and moving towards truth is an illusory venture. In the same fashion things remaining outside our representation are things-in-themselves as Kantian agnosticism explained. Marxism is not positivism but considers truth as relative. This extremely narrow view under Post-modernist influence rejects the boundary line between science and superstition and thoroughly dismisses any possibility of truth outside the power structure. This dangerous trend reaches its nadir through the relativistic logic of post-modernism in the writing of physicist Alan Sokal. He writes:

"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 the discourse of the scientific community."[Alan Sokal’s writing In A Callari and D.Ruccoio, Wesleyan University Press, Hanover and London, 1961, Quoted in Meera Nanda, ‘Restoring the Real : Rethinking Social Constructivist Theories of Science, In Socialist Register, 1997 ibid] It is one type of agnosticism separating substance from appearance. It limits science, rejects logical thought, and distracts attention from cognition of the objective laws of nature and society. The best refutation of such superficial view is practice and material production. Kant differentiated between real ground and logical grounds. In his early works he restricted formal deductive methods of thinking in favour of experience. Ultimately Kant was led to agnosticism stating that the nature of things as they exist of themselves in principle is accessible to human knowledge. To him true theoretical knowledge is possible only in mathematics and natural science. And it is determined by the fact that in man’s mind there are apriori forms of sensuous contemplation of reason and there is a connection between sensuous contemplation and the concept of reason. In Kant’s view sensation stems from the action of an unknowable " thing-in-itself" on the sense organs as ordered by means of a priori forms of sensibility (space and time) and reason (categories of unity, plurality, causality, possibility, necessity and other). He also believed that striving for absolute knowledge is rooted in reason. Man’s reason thus seeks to solve the problem. He accepted God as necessary postulate of faith, on which the moral order of the world rests. Marx and Engel’s exposed the idealist contradictoriness in Kant and in his philosophy of thingishness and idealist view on reason. Hegel believed that reason does not go beyond static definiteness, abstract identity, abstract universality fixed opposites separated from one another (essence and appearance, necessity and chance, life and death, etc.)

Discursive or simple reason-based thought is not enough, it is merely the necessary step which allows one to rise higher, towards the intelligible forms of cognition. The dialectical negative-intelligible aspect of thought resolves the problem of one-sided and limited definitions of reason. Cognition is a dialectical process having different stages of development. It starts from "living perception" bringing human beings to external qualities of objects. The data of "living perception", experience are processed and generalised by their higher cognitive ability, abstract-logical thought which forms concepts. The logical activity of thought is affected in various forms: induction and deduction, analysis and synthesis, construction of hypothesis and theories. Yet this creates only subjective ideas, yet to become the objective truth. Truth is arrived at by a process by removing error, and limited by the given stage of development in technological level, potentialities of production and such other factors. Here lies the strength of Marxism and baselessness of the Post-modernist attack against all rationality, not to speak of absence of verifiable principle of practice in the dictionary of that idealist trend.

Popper placed his non-relativist view on the progress in science by referring its movement closer and closer to truth through successive falsification. T.S.Kuhn criticised it by positing both continuities and discontinuities in the evolutionary process of science with the absorption of earlier ideas and newer findings.[T.S.Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 1970] Many later writers like Richard Boyd, Philip Kitcher, etc. while admitting the role of contextuality of knowledge attempted to show that this problem can be overcome to a great degree.[Richard Boyd, ‘Constructivism, Realism and Philosophical Method’, In John Earman(ed), Inference, Explanation and Other Philosophical Frustrations: Essays in the Philosophy of Science, Berkley, 1992, Philip Kitcher, The Advancement of Science: Science Without Legend, Objectivity Without Illusions, Oxford University Press, 1993]

To end this part, it is necessary to fight tooth and nail the gigantic state apparatus exploiting and utilising science against humanity. Simultaneously we must expose and lay bare the haughty fad of the pretentious Post-modernists/Post-structuralists to dismiss science per se as internal to our system of representation, discursive and always remaining within the bounds of power and culture. What is needed is to put science in use for the people’s needs.


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