by Joseph Green
(from Communist Voice #20, Mach 28, 1999)
One, two, three, many realities
Ad hominem attacks--the new "rationality"
Relativism and science
The "strong program" in the sociology of science
The paradigms of T.S. Kuhn
Overcoming the crisis of the left
The dialectics of nature
Does science teach anything but technical lessons?
Dialectics, motion, and infinitesimals
The Enlightenment and the masses
The rise of Marxism
The current crisis
In defense of materialism
. The left-wing scientist Alan Sokal became the center of controversy in 1996 when his spoof on postmodernism, an article with the pompous title "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity", was accepted as a serious article by the postmodernist journal Social Text and published in its Spring/Summer 1996 issue on the "science wars". This article denied, in the name of "science", the basic materialist view that people live in an external world, whose existence and features are independent of the desires and feelings of human beings. It was full of pseudo-profound assertions about science that were ludicrously wrong. But as it repeated all the postmodernist catchwords and referred in glowing terms to various postmodernist authors, the editors of Social Text couldn't tell it from an ordinary postmodernist article. Indeed, they 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.(1)
. The next year Sokal, now joined by Jean Bricmont, a theoretical physicist from Belgium, continued to poke fun at postmodernist ignorance of science. They published in France a book entitled Impostures Intellectuelles which showed the many leading postmodernist writers, including the famous psychologist Jacques Lacan and the sociologist of science Bruno Latour, were spouting nonsense in the name of "science". For many postmodernists it is a point of honor to write in an obscure language that is difficult to understand. Sokal and Bricmont showed that the passages about science in various works of these authors were incomprehensible not due to their depth of thought, but because they were mistaken or even meaningless. A good deal of serious postmodernist writing is indeed hard to distinguish from Sokal's spoof of 1996.
. Impostures Intellectuelles brought the debate to a new level, spreading it from the U.S. to France, and the book is currently being translated into about a dozen languages. Many postmodernists were outraged that their favorite authors were being judged by the standards of rational thought and objective knowledge whose relevance postmodernism denies. Meanwhile the book finally appeared in English last year in Britain; and at the end of year it was published in the U.S. under the title Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science.
. The book centers on two subjects. Besides puncturing postmodernist windbaggery about science, it also sets forward some basic materialist views about the nature of science and its relation to the external world. Mind you, Sokal and Bricmont rarely use the word "materialism", although it is not clear whether they are simply bowing before the general prejudices of academic circles against such an allegedly crude doctrine as materialism or whether they themselves share these prejudices. They avoid the term "materialism" by instead emphasizing that they are attacking "a potpourri of ideas, often poorly formulated, that go under the generic name of 'relativism' " (p. 51). "Relativism" however is a rather broad term that covers many different concepts. Sokal and Bricmont distinguish between "moral or ethical relativism" about value judgements, "aesthetic relativism" about beauty, and relativism about the existence of an external world ("cognitive or epistemic relativism"), which is the only relativism that they analyze in this book. They criticize the views on science of such "relativists" as T.S. Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend and Bruno Latour.
. Sokal and Bricmont limit their analysis of postmodernism to these two points: pseudo-scientific jargon, and "relativism" about the existence of scientific truth. For example, they don't discuss or pass judgment on the general psychological theories of Lacan, only his mathematical claims, such as "psychoanalytic topology". But for now, their narrowness serves a useful purpose. Their object is not to assess everything that a postmodernist author may have said or done, and certainly not to oppose every political cause that a postmodernist may have championed, but to focus attention on some basic theoretical issues. They accomplish this with an admirable flair for irritating the high priests of obscurity.
. Fashionable Nonsense is certainly not the last word on the "science wars". Sokal and Bricmont
ignore the question of dialectics; they have little conception of how to apply materialism outside
the sphere of the physical sciences; they don't know how to deal with the crisis in the left other
than to urge rational thought; they don't deal with how the official scientific establishment bends
before the bourgeoisie and does its will; etc. But it is long overdue that two scientists should
demolish the scientific pretensions of the postmodernist philosophers; indeed, Sokal and
Bricmont laughed at them. For myself, I found the book not just useful, but rather enjoyable as
well.(2) It will be welcomed by all those who have felt oppressed by the high-flown verbiage and
double-talk with which postmodernism has sought to silence criticism. It has also come as a great
relief to some people who had made a serious attempt to understand the supposed scientific basis
of what the postmodernist authors have been saying.
One, two, three, many realities
. But is it really possible that postmodernism doubts the existence of an external or objective world? Do they really believe that "reality" is simply whatever a group of people agrees to accept as reality (i.e., that reality is a "social construction" or a "social text")? Well, the editors of Social Text published Sokal's spoof "Transgressing the Boundaries" because they liked the philosophical points it made. What did they like about it? Well, they could hardly have missed that, in the very first paragraph, it denounced clinging to
"the dogma . . . which can be summarized briefly as follows: that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in 'eternal' physical laws; and that human being can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the 'objective' procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method."(3)
. The latter part of the article has a section entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Liberatory Science". It proposes a "postmodern science" to replace current sciences. One of its features would be to
"liberate human beings from the tyranny of 'absolute truth' and 'objective reality'."(4)
. Is it possible that the editors of Social Text were unaware of these assertions in Sokal's article? In any case, they repeated them later in their own words. Bruce Robbins echoed the idea that one had to overthrow the "tyranny" of reality in his reply to Sokal entitled "Anatomy of a Hoax" in Tikkun.(5) He wrote that "truth can be another source of oppression".
. Sokal's article "Truth or Consequences: A Brief Response to Robbins", appeared in the next issue of Tikkun.(6) He analyzed Robbins' argument as follows:
. "'Is it in the interests of women, African Americans, and other super-exploited people,' Robbins asks, 'to insist that truth and identity are social constructions [i.e. whatever is agreed upon by this or that group of people--JG]? Yes and no,' he asserts. 'No, you can't talk about exploitation without respect for empirical evidence'--exactly my point. 'But yes,' Robbins continues, 'truth can be another source of oppression.' Come again? How can truth oppress anyone? The existing social arrangements may indeed be oppressive, but how can telling the truth about them make things worse? 'It was not so long ago,' Robbins explains, 'that the scientists gave their full authority to explanations of why women and African Americans . . . were inherently inferior.' But that isn't truth -- it's ideology posing as truth, and objective science demonstrates its falsity.
. "This error is repeated throughout Robbins' essay: he systematically confuses truth with claims of truth, fact with assertions of fact, and knowledge with pretensions to knowledge. These elisions underlie much of the sloppy thinking about 'social construction' that is prevalent nowadays in the academy, and it's something that progressives ought to resist. Sure, let's show which economic, political and ideological interests are served by our opponents' accounts of 'reality'; but first let's demonstrate, by marshaling evidence and logic, why those accounts are objectively false (or in some cases true but incomplete)." (emphasis as in the original)
. What do the postmodernists put in the place of objective reality? For them, what is true depends on one's "values and beliefs". Stanley Aronowitz, one of the founders of Social Text and an editor until 1997, put forward his view of reality in the article "Alan Sokal's 'Transgression'".(7)He proclaimed that Social Text "questioned the naive old materialism that holds that knowledge simply reflects reality." He denounces the "doctrine [that] there are 'objective truths' since the earth revolves around the sun, gravity exists and various other laws of nature are settled matters." Instead, Aronowitz says, even the facts of physics vary, depending on "the values and beliefs of scientists as well as the political imperatives of ruling groups who fund scientific work."
. Naturally people are influenced by their values and beliefs and by who funds their work. But the question is: is it possible for humanity to gradually sort out truth from error and get closer and closer to what really exists in the world? Not according to Aronowitz. He states that
". . . Sokal readily agreed that facts must be interpreted, but maintained that proper scientific method filters out social and cultural influences in the process of discovery. This, it seems to me, is an article of faith akin to a religious belief."
. So Aronowitz insists that what is true depends on one's values. He mixes together, as Robbins does, the question of fact with the question of what people believe. For example, he raises the question of "theories of racial and gender inequality", including the views of "nineteenth-century mainstream scientists who held women to be incapable of reason because of their biology". And he states that these theories are wrong, not just because they are factually wrong, but mainly because "they violate the criterion of humanistic universalism". (However, as we shall see in a moment, another Social Text editor apparently differs from "humanistic universalism", since he assumes that some of the prejudiced nineteenth-century views are correct, that scientific rationality is "androcentric", and that women think in accordance with private, subjective experiences.)
. What about quantum mechanics and solid state physics? Aronowitz discusses the truth of these fields. He denies the
"flatfooted statement that the 'objective truth' " of such science "has nothing to do with its [science's--JG] alliances with the military."
Thus we are to judge quantum mechanics according to our anti-militaristic values. Unfortunately, he doesn't give any example of what this means concretely. How, for example, do we judge whether quarks and other subatomic particles really exist depending on our political and ethical judgments?
. Andrew Ross, another editor of Social Text, developed a similar idea in the introduction to the issue of Social Text on the science wars. He denounced "reason, divorced from value". He wanted to replace "empirical rationality" (reasoning based on fact) with
"different ways of doing science, ways that downgrade methodology, experiment, and manufacturing in favor of local environments, cultural values, and principles of social justice."(8)
Here Ross mixes together the question of determining what is true about the world, with the issue of how much manufacturing should occur in a local area. But the basic idea is clear. He holds that one need not look at the hard facts about the world, but can instead assume that the world conforms to one's value and sense of justice.
. Indeed, according to Ross's logic, one should not follow the scientific method of investigating the facts about the external world, because
"the androcentric [male-centered] rationality of the scientific method has served not only to exclude women professionally but also to reinforce their social subjugation through its subordination of the private, subjective realm of experience with which they were socially identified."(9)
Here again we see the an editor of Social Text confusing beliefs about facts with facts. Because women were "socially identified" in the past by conservatives as being incapable of logic and completely involved in "private, subjective" concerns, therefore Ross holds that women must actually have a "private, subjective" form of reasoning separate from the supposedly male rationality. On this basis, Ross denounces rationality as supposedly androcentric and oppressive of women.
. As we see, it's not that the postmodernists altogether deny reality; they believe in a reality of
sorts. Indeed, Ross, Robbins, and Aronowitz like reality so much that they believe that every
group with different beliefs and a different sense of justice has its own reality, just as real as any
other group's reality. They believe in not one reality, but two, three, many realities. But all these
realities are subjective realities; the postmodernists deny the existence of an objective truth,
separate from the beliefs and values of people. In their view, it is not people who must make their
beliefs conform to the external world, but the external world that they regard as a "social
construct" that must conform to whatever values people have.
Ad hominem attacks--the new "rationality"
. But if reality depends on one's values and beliefs, then how can disputes be solved? If one can't appeal to a rational investigation of the world, then what criteria are left to resolve disagreements among people? If one's values and preferences and sense of justice are the real criteria of truth, how does one decide between the views put forward by people who have different values and preferences and views of justice? All that can be done is to praise how good one's own motives and values are, and to denigrate the motives and intentions of one's opponent. A good deal of postmodernist writing thus ends up as ad hominem attacks on the intentions and characters of their opponents.
. For example, the "science wars" issue of Social Text was devoted in large part to refuting the book Higher Superstition/The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt. Bruce Robbins and Andrew Ross themselves said that the point of the issue was "to gauge how science critics were responding to the attacks of Paul Gross and Norman Levitt, and other conservatives in science."(10) Yet there is little about the content of the Higher Superstition in Social Text. A number of articles complain about the Higher Superstition, but what is notable is how little attention the articles pay to the main examples and arguments of the book.(11)
. Social Text concentrates on smearing Gross and Levitt's political stand. Moreover, it turns out that Social Text's political characterization of these authors are based mainly on saying that whoever opposes postmodernism must be a conservative. In reality, at least one of the authors of Higher Superstition, Norman Levitt, belongs to the same leftist political trend, the moderate reformists of the "Democratic Socialists of America", as Social Text editor Stanley Aronowitz. Gross and Levitt are angry at the "academic left", but they distinguish between leftists in general, including those in the universities, and the "academic left", their name for the postmodernists; they distinguish between postmodernism and various left-wing causes, although they are crusaders against radicalism.
. So how does Social Text analyze their stand? Andrew Ross, in its introduction to the science wars issue of Social Text, sets the tone. He simply denounces Gross and Levitt as "stalking horses for social conservatism" whose work "belongs fair and square to the tradition of Alan Bloom, William Bennett . . . and Dinesh D'Souza". He knows, of course, that Gross and Levitt have different views and aims than these social conservatives. Nevertheless, this doesn't matter to Ross. Why, he says, they are fervent, and so are the social conservatives, so clearly they're really the same. He complains that they have issued a "wake-up call" against science-bashers "in the same systematic fashion" as the conservatives "fingered the defilers of their Great Books tradition." Moreover, Gross and Levitt are running "lockstep in style if not influence with the pitbull moralizing of the Buchanans, Doles, and Gramms of the moment." Style, not substance, that's how Ross approaches the question. Other articles in Social Text also evade the theoretical issues. Based on style, and not on any position of Gross and Levitt concerning abortion rights, Sarah Franklin concludes that "Like Randall Terry and Operation Rescue campaigners, Gross and Levitt espouse a paternalistic Right-to-Life discourse concerning the vital essence of the scientific ethos, and the importance of its salvation on behalf of our children's future."(12) A good deal of the argumentation seems to be squabbling over university positions. George Levine argues in Social Text that "turf is Gross and Levitt's real concern".(13) This is echoed by Langdon Winner, who opens his article by complaining about how "malicious" Gross and Levitt are, never gets beyond this level of attack, and mainly complain that Gross and Levitt's views would harm the funding of postmodernist work by the establishment.(14)
. Social Text's whole approach to the "science wars" is that the truth is whatever is politically useful to them at the moment. Ross opens this issue of Social Text with the words
. "At the end of July 1995, Republican moderates in Congress broke ranks to help defeat a brutal package of antienvironmental legislation. . . . The significance of this moment is worth dwelling on."
According to Ross, this vote was a victory for the "rise in popular technoskepticism", which Ross associates with a denunciation of scientific "rationality". Thus, whoever promotes "technoskepticism" and denounces scientific "rationality" is supposedly progressive, while supporting materialism means being a stalking horse for conservatism and ravaging the environment. This is why it is not necessary for Ross to examine what his opponents say; so long as they are not "technoskeptics" in his sense of the word, they are automatically anti-environmental monsters. But at the same time, Ross inadvertently shows how supposedly radical claims about the need to do away with the old materialism can go hand in hand with the most moderate and servile politics. Ross poses as a flaming red because he denounces the old rationality, while he is worried about coalition-building within the establishment.
. Social Text has had a bit more of a problem smearing Sokal, however. Sokal concentrates on certain basic questions of materialism, while Gross and Levitt swing the ax in every direction. While Gross and Levitt wrote against the "academic left", Sokal repeatedly insists that his intention is to strengthen the left. He is also known as a leftist; for example, during the period of Sandinista rule, he went to Nicaragua and spent some time teaching at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma. Social Text was proud to list him as one of the authors in their Spring/Summer 1996 issue, and eager to do so because he was one of the few scientists among the authors in their issue devoted to the "science wars". (According to Social Text's own thumbnail sketches of their contributors, only two others were physical scientists: Ruth Hubbard, a biologist, and Richard Levins, an evolutionary ecologist.) Having printed an article from him once, makes it harder for Social Text to later simply dismiss later as a conservative. Harder, but not impossible.
. The basic defense of the postmodernists remains that their opponents must be ultra-rightists. As one writer noted:
"at an academic conference on 'Left Conservatism' I attended this spring at University of California at Santa Cruz, Sokal was called an 'ignoramus,' an accomplice to conservatives, and compared to Newt Gingrich."(15)
He was also compared to the notorious Rush Limbaugh. Similarly attacked at the conference
were liberals such as Michael Moore (of "Roger and Me" fame), Barbara Ehrenreich and Katha
. Let us pass from the debate over Sokal and Bricmont's work to the content of their book Fashionable Nonsense. The bulk of the work is devoted to ridiculing the nonsensical passages about mathematics and physics in a number of famous postmodernist works. The postmodernist authors didn't just refer to science in a few, minor passages. Instead claims about science are often a key part of their theories, and sometimes, perhaps, the sole proof of the validity of these theories. So when it turns out that these authors are actually ignorant of science, and that their scientific musings range from the irrelevant to the fraudulent, it strikes at the heart of their work.
. Two of the passages cited by Sokal and Bricmont will suffice to give the reader some idea of the flavor of this material. Let's begin with Jacques Lacan, to whom Sokal and Bricmont devote a chapter. Here is an excerpt from a seminar by Lacan on "Desire and the interpretation of desire in Hamlet":
". . . human life could be defined as a calculus in which zero was irrational. This formula is just an image, a mathematical metaphor. When I say 'irrational,' I'm referring not to some unfathomable emotional state but precisely to what is called an imaginary number. The square root of minus one doesn't correspond to anything that is subject to our intuition, anything real--in the mathematical sense of the term--and yet, it must be conserved, along with its full function."(17)
. Sokal and Bricmont point out that Lacan apparently believes that the mathematical concept of an imaginary number is the same as that of an irrational number, which is not true. Lacan also seems to identify the mathematical meaning of the terms "irrational number" and "imaginary number" with the ordinary meaning of "irrational" and "imaginary". Moreover, a metaphor should bring some image or idea to the mind, yet one might go further than Sokal and Bricmont and question if there is any meaning or imagery at all in Lacan's phrase "a calculus in which zero was irrational".
. But the very absurdity of such passages from Lacan usually serves as a defense against criticism. Since such mathematical gibberish has so little meaning in itself, the postmodernist master can pose as the only one who knows what it really means, and so the critic can be denounced as not having penetrated into its full, rich, profundity. One has to accept such postmodernist pronouncements in the same worshipful attitude as a novitiate accepts the supposed word of God.
. Moreover, Lacan doesn't just use mathematics as a metaphor. He claims that higher mathematics is important for his psychological theories, and Sokal and Bricmont criticize a number of these psychological passages.
. But let's pass on to the criticism of "androcentric [male-centered] rationality of the scientific method" that Andrew Ross is so excited about. Sokal and Bricmont devote a chapter to the writings of Luce Irigaray. Among her varied interests is the criticism of science as having a masculine nature. Let's see how she argues about Einstein's famous equation concerning the relation of energy and matter:
"Is E = Mc2 a sexed equation? Perhaps it is. Let us make the hypothesis that it is insofar as it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us. What seems to me to 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 . . ."(18)
. Thus the very fact that the equation singles out a particular speed, c, the speed of light, is supposed to suggest that it is based on a specifically masculine form of reasoning. Oh? Is it really harder for women to use this equation than men? Or is Irigaray proposing that the speed of light doesn't really occupy a special position in nature and hence the equation is false? In that case, what about the numerous confirmations of this equation in practice?
. These and other assertions of the postmodernist authors about science are so absurd that many
students of their literature probably can't believe that eminent people could write such nonsense
as these passages appear to be. A student might feel that well-respected authors couldn't really be
making some blatant errors, and might spend years searching for some deeper meaning in these
passages. Other people are likely held back from evaluating the claims of these authors, because
they do not have training in the various scientific fields, despite the fact that these authors don't
know much about science either. And imagine the plight of someone, interested in psychology
but convinced that Lacan pointed the way forward, who spent years learning algebraic topology
and differential geometry, rather than learning about people, only to discover that these fields had
nothing to do with helping people recover their mental health. So precisely at this time, when
these authors are influential, it is necessary to emancipate intellectual life from such blatant
Relativism and science
. The longest chapter in Fashionable Nonsense, comprising almost one-quarter of the main body
of the book, and related comments in subsequent chapters, deal with the relation of science to the
external world. Sokal and Bricmont refute the "relativist" views that science (and human
knowledge in general) can not provide increasingly accurate knowledge of the external world.
. It is well-known that science depends on observations of the external world and on experiments. But the relationship between experiments and scientific theory is a bit complex (indeed, it's dialectical). Experiments and observations can't give rise to a theory by themselves, without the intervention of human theorizing. For example, the results of an experiment, taken in isolation, can often be explained in several ways. To see which is the correct explanation may take a good deal of more thought and further experimentation. Take the simple question of measuring the freezing point of water and seeing if it is really 32 degrees Fahrenheit (or 0 degrees Centigrade).One might cool down water to a lower and lower temperature and note when it freezes, but this experiment doesn't always give the same result. If the water isn't pure enough, the contaminants might act as an anti-freeze and let the water stay liquid well below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Even if the water is pure, it may sometimes only freeze below 32 degrees; under special circumstances water can become "supercooled" and remain liquid below its normal freezing point, although it will freeze immediately if it comes into contact with the smallest crystal of ice. So the result of even a simple measurement can sometimes require a good deal of investigation to see what it really means.
. Thus the evaluation of experimental evidence and the formulation of theories are not automatic procedures. Sokal and Bricmont refer to lack of existence of cookie-cutter patterns for this work as follows,
"there does not exist (at least at present) a complete codification of scientific rationality, and we seriously doubt that one could ever exist. . . . Nevertheless, . . . we think that well-developed scientific theories are in general supported by good arguments, but the rationality of those arguments must be analyzed case-by-case."(19)
. But the lack of automatic rules, and the other complexities that arise in the course of scientific
investigation, are used by the postmodernists to argue that science doesn't really reflect the world.
Sokal and Bricmont focus particular attention, from a materialist point of view, on three
characterizations that have been made of these complexities and that have been used to deny that
science can reach objective knowledge: the "theory-ladenness of observation", the
"underdetermination of theory by evidence" and "the alleged incommensurability of
paradigms".Along the way, they critique the attempt of Karl Popper and the "Vienna Circle" to
reduce the practice of science to formal rules as well as the relativist views of Quine, T.S. Kuhn,
Paul Feyerabend, and Bruno Latour.
The "strong program" in the sociology of science
. Of particular interest, with respect to the issues about reality raised earlier in this article, is Sokal and Bricmont's critique of "the strong program" in the study of the history and present role of science. Scientific institutions are part of the overall social structure of a society, just as much as any other institutions. The economic and political factors that determine whether these institutions are built and affect their work can and should be studied. Scientific disputes are also affected by the overall class struggles and ideological atmosphere of a society, and this too is an interesting area of study. But the "strong program" goes much further than this. Sokal and Bricmont point out that its "aim was to explain in sociological terms the content of scientific theories."(20) The extracts given in Fashionable Nonsense from the advocates of the strong program, such as David Bloor, clarify that the aim of the "strong program" is to explain the outcome of scientific debates and to study how scientific theories evolve, without any reference to the truth or falsity of these theories.
. This means that the "strong program" doesn't regard scientific theories as reflecting physical reality, but only as reflecting social conditions. For example, it doesn't only seek to examine what social conditions favored or retarded the discovery and acceptance of Newton's theory of universal gravitation theory or even influenced the way it was formulated, but it seeks to explain all of Newton's theory itself solely in "sociological terms". It doesn't simply point out the social factors that manifest themselves in scientific debates, but demands that these debates should be studied entirely independently of whether the theories under dispute are better or worse descriptions of reality.
. It is one thing to note that scientific debates are affected by factors other than scientific truth, that sometimes wrong theories are accepted, or even that famous scientific advances have often been accepted while the evidence for them was still iffy. It is another to try to explain the history of science totally independently of the truth or falsity of the scientific fields under discussion and of the accuracy of their description of nature. For example, take the question of the debates over the nature of light. One important phenomenon is that a beam of white light can be broken up into a spectrum of colors by inserting a glass prism in its path. Any reasonable theory of light has to be able to explain this. But why have scientists with varying views concerning the nature of light accepted the existence of this phenomenon? Surely the fact that this phenomenon actually takes place and is easily verified has something to do with it.
. But Bloor, one of the founders of the "strong program", demands that the sociology of science should "be impartial with respect to truth and falsity, rationality or irrationality, success or failure" of the theories it examines.(21) (p. 80) Sokal and Bricmont even point out Bloor sometimes defines "knowledge" as simply meaning whatever is accepted. Bloor writes that:
. "Instead of defining it [knowledge--JG] as true belief--or perhaps, justified true belief--knowledge for the sociologist is whatever people take to be knowledge. It consists of those beliefs which people confidently hold to and live by."(22)
. But can Bloor really mean that anything a person's believes should be called "knowledge"? Well, no, he does distinguish between personal beliefs and group beliefs. Anything that a group believes is "knowledge". He writes that
". . .Of course knowledge must be distinguished from mere belief. This can be done by reserving the word 'knowledge' for what is collectively endorsed, leaving the individual and idiosyncratic to count as mere belief."
Here, by the way, we see that "relativism" has a strong conformist flavor. Despite its veneer of liberating one from the standards of one's society with pluralism, it provides no basis for the individual to fight against the dominant "knowledge" of any group one is in.
. But whether one is talking about a belief or a social standard, Bloor demands that the sociologist should not worry about whether it has any rational basis. He writes that:
. "For the relativist there is no sense attached to the idea that some standards or beliefs are really rational as distinct from merely locally accepted as such."(23)
. Bruno Latour similarly demands that the truth or falsity of scientific theories must have no place in the study of the history of science. His "Third Rule of Method" states that Nature itself is simply whatever people think Nature is. He writes, concerning scientific debates:
. "Since the 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."(24)
. This leads Latour to some funny conclusions. Sokal and Bricmont point to where
. "Latour discusses what he interprets as the discovery in 1976, by French scientists working on the mummy of the pharaoh Ramses II, that his death (circa 1213 BC) was due to tuberculosis. Latour asks: 'How could he pass away due to a 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.' "(25)
. However strange Latour's argument, it is a natural conclusion from the idea that truth is whatever people believe it to be, and that debates over scientific theories are what actually create the truth of these theories. In 1213 BC, the TB bacillus wasn't known. Therefore, by postmodernist logic, it didn't exist. It was only when the scientific and medical community accepted the existence of TB, that--according to the "strong program" in the sociology of science--it really existed.
. Sokal and Bricmont point out that Bloor is inconsistent in his use of such terms as "knowledge". Bloor slips back and forth between the view that truth is whatever people say it is, and the ordinary view of truth. This, no doubt, is typical of the practice of "relativists". Indeed, the very method of these relativists is inconsistent. They insist that the historian should not talk about "knowledge" but about what people accept as knowledge. But to know what the people of a certain time period accepted as knowledge is itself knowledge. To study the "sociological" factors involved in the history of science assumes that the historian can know many facts about history, facts that are often harder to demonstrate then the facts about nature that advocates of the "strong program" insist should be banished from discussion. Sokal and Bricmont express this as follows:
". . . Research in history, and in particular the history of science, employs methods that are not radically different from those used in the natural sciences: studying documents, drawing the most rational inferences, making deductions based on the available data, and so forth. If arguments of this type in physics or biology did not allow us to arrive at reasonably reliable conclusions, what reason would there be to trust them in history?"(26)
. But, inconsistent or not, the "strong program" in the sociology of science has a view of reality
that is similar to those of the editors of Social Text. The "strong program" illustrates what it
means to say that truth or knowledge is simply a "social construct".
The paradigms of T.S. Kuhn
. Fashionable Nonsense also discuss the work of Thomas Kuhn, whose best-known work is The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Written in 1962, it still exercises a considerable influence.For example, last year the Chicago Workers' Voice group discovered this book, and their ideologist Sarah sought to replace the Marxist materialism of Plekhanov with the viewpoint of Kuhn.(27)
. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn distinguishes between what he calls "normal science", where work proceeds within certain basic frameworks which Kuhn calls "paradigms", and "revolutionary" periods where the basic theories and frameworks are challenged, which Kuhn calls a change of paradigms. Kuhn had introduced a new terminology, but was this really a new conception about how science develops? Sokal and Bricmont remark that
. "This vision of things fits so well with scientists' perception of their own work that it is difficult to see, at first glance, what is revolutionary in this approach . . ."(28)
. They go on, however, to point out that:
". . . The problems arises only when one faces the notion of the incommensurability of paradigms. . . . though one can give several meanings to the word 'incommensurable" and a good deal of the debate about Kuhn's work has centered on this question, there is at least one version of the incommensurability thesis that casts doubt on the possibility of rational comparison between competing theories, namely the idea that our experience of the world is radically conditioned by our theories, which in turn depend upon the paradigm."
. This means that Kuhn seems to advocate that, given that one holds to a certain paradigm, one can interpret the results of an experiment, whatever these results are, so that they fit this paradigm. Kuhn jumps from the fact that some experimental results can be explained in different ways, to assuming that the entire weight of experimental results can be explained away. Thus, in his conception, the change from one paradigm to another isn't a matter of an advance in knowledge (which one might assume to be the case when the new paradigm really is more accurate than the old one), but simply is a change in what is socially accepted as true. Sokal and Bricmont characterize this aspect of Kuhn's position as being that
"changes of paradigm are due principally to nonempirical factors and that, once accepted, they condition our perception of the world to such an extent that they can only be confirmed by our subsequent experiences."(29)
. But if scientific theories didn't reflect the world and lack empirical content, then what would
they reflect? They would simply be a social construct. Scientific truth would be whatever the
scientists said it was.(30)
Overcoming the crisis of the left
. Fashionable Nonsense writes that among the "principal negative effects" of postmodernism is "a weakening of the political left".(31) Indeed, Sokal has consistently described his motive for attacking postmodernism as to help cure a sickness in the left. Replying to the editors of Social Text over his spoof of postmodernism, he stressed:
. "My goal isn't to defend science from the barbarian hordes of lit crit (we'll survive just fine, thank you), but to defend the Left from a trendy segment of itself. Like innumerable others from diverse backgrounds and disciplines, I call for the Left to reclaim its Enlightenment roots." From this standpoint, he opposed the Social Text editors for "setting up an opposition between science and progressive politics. They describe science as a 'civil religion' that supports existing social and political structures. It is of course true that scientific research is skewed by the influence of those with power and money. But a scientific worldview, based on a commitment to logic and standards of evidence and to the incessant confrontation of theories with reality, is an essential component of any progressive politics."(32)
. Sokal held that left-wing politics is undermined by the abandonment of the commitment to truth. Correctly criticizing Social Text editor Robbins, he wrote that:
. " 'Those of us who do cultural politics sometimes act,' Robbins candidly admits, 'as if . . .truth were always and everywhere a weapon of the right.' That's an astoundingly self-defeating attitude for an avowed leftist. If truth were on the side of the right, shouldn't we all--at least the honest ones among us--become right-wingers? For my own part, I'm a leftist and a feminist because of evidence and logic (combined with elementary ethics), not in spite of it."(33)
. Sokal and Bricmont connect the spread of postmodernist "relativism" to several causes, including
"the desperate situation and general disorientation of the left, a situation that appears to be unique in its history. . . . Never before have the ideals of justice and equality seemed so utopian. Without entering into an analysis of the causes of this situation (much less proposing solutions), it is easy to understand that it generates a kind of discouragement that expresses itself in part in postmodernism."(34)
. Indeed, Sokal and Bricmont really don't propose solutions to the crisis of the left. Their practical proposals consist mainly of urging people to think better. Thus, in order to achieve "a real dialogue" between the physical and the social sciences they recommend seven things, such as "It's a good idea to know what one is talking about".(35)
. What can this achieve? Sokal and Bricmont end Fashionable Nonsense by looking into "what
will come after postmodernism". They give some possibilities of what intellectuals will turn to: a
more extreme irrationalism? abandoning any serious criticism of existing conditions for a couple
of decades? or bringing about an "emergence of an intellectual culture that would be rationalist
but not dogmatic, scientifically minded but not scientistic, open-minded but not frivolous, and
politically progressive but not sectarian. But this, of course, is only a hope, and perhaps only a
dream."(36) One can only agree that, as they restrict themselves to chiding people to think more
clearly, they don't provide much basis for judging whether one or the other possibility will take
place. Sokal and Bricmont don't suggest any way of influencing the outcome, other than refuting
postmodernist charlatanism, and that, however valuable at this time, is obviously only part of the
. The lack of any perspective for dealing with the crisis of the left is related to shortcomings in Sokal and Bricmont's analysis. For example, they repeatedly suggest that the Left "reclaim its Enlightenment roots". To some extent, they are simply reacting to the postmodernists, who justify their attack on materialism and rationality as a repudiation of the Enlightenment.
. The Enlightenment refers to the philosophical and intellectual ferment in Europe of the 17th and the 18th centuries. The boldest Enlightenment philosophers, such as the French materialists of the 18th century, risked persecution by the monarchy in their struggle to subject all the despotic and backward institutions of their world to the acid test of reason. No doubt, the Enlightenment helped break through the medieval and religious rubbish that was a lead weight on human thought; it remains of considerable interest in the history of world philosophy. But progressive thought has advanced quite a bit since those days.
. Sokal and Bricmont are particularly concerned with certain general truths of materialism concerning the existence of an external world and the ability of human thought to increasingly comprehend it. By no means were all Enlightenment figures materialists. But even the materialists of the Enlightenment were limited in their outlook.
. Thus the left has to do a lot more than simply reclaim its Enlightenment roots. The postmodernists call on people to go backwards from the Enlightenment, which is absurd; the reply of the left can't be to stand pat on the Enlightenment, but to go forward from it.
. Moreover, however subversive some of the Enlightenment figures may have been in their own
time, today the Enlightenment is utterly respectable. Its defense is one of the trends of official
philosophy. Today, the best spirit from the Enlightenment, the spirit of subjecting all the
institutions of the day to the acid test of criticism and striving for alternatives, can only be
maintained by going beyond the Enlightenment.
. Sokal and Bricmont's advice that people should think better is quite in line with Enlightenment prescriptions. By itself, it is more or less a platitude. Unfortunately, Sokal and Bricmont not only don't go further than this, but they shrug off attempts to go further than this. It's just a peripheral part of their book, not one of its key points, but it is something that they seem to feel strongly on.
. Thus, while defending the relevance of materialism for science, Sokal and Bricmont are skeptical about its relevance to the study of human society. In their view, natural science alone is the realm of materialism, while social issues are the realm of speculation. They say that their book has
"defended the idea that there is such a thing as evidence and that facts matter. However, many questions of vital interest--notably those concerning the future--cannot be answered conclusively on the basis of evidence and reason, and they lead human beings to indulge in (more-or-less-informed) speculation." In their view, "the principal lesson to be learned from the past is that predicting the future is hazardous" so that all one can do is put forward "our fears and our hopes".(37)
As we have seen, they put forward their fears and hopes about what might follow postmodernism, but they don't even try to indicate what factors might influence what actually happens.
. Now, surely, not everything about the future is unpredictable. The scientific laws about nature which are discovered today are likely to be valid tomorrow, or else there would be little point in science at all. But what about human society? Doesn't its evolution obey certain laws as well? There will be always be a great deal that is unpredictable or even random in human action, but aren't there basic features about how society is evolving that can be determined? For example, the class struggle in capitalist society is not an accident, which might just as well be replaced by class harmony and mutual solidarity tomorrow. There are certain laws of economic and social development which put limits on future possibilities. For example, it has been verified repeatedly that the spread of commodity production and marketplace relations in the countryside leads to differentiation between rich and poor, the ruining of many peasants and the enriching of a minority. More generally, it is quite clear that the various social classes act in different ways and play different roles in societal evolution.
. If there really were no regularity to societal development, or if this regularity were beyond human understanding, then there would be nothing to do but cross one's fingers and put forward "fears and hopes" about the future. If there is such regularity, it is important to study how society is evolving and to direct our activities according to what we discover, and not according to our whims.
. Even in the Enlightenment, the French materialists of the 18th century were inspired by natural science to seek a materialist explanation of society itself. They failed to find a satisfactory explanation, but they did not feel materialism could be cordoned off simply into the sphere of nature.(38) They were excited about Newtonian physics because they didn't regard it as solely a technical accomplishment, but felt that what it showed about the world reinforced a materialist world-view that had implications for social issues. But Sokal and Bricmont imply that materialism has little to do with explaining the way human society works and with figuring out how to change it. They think materialism with regard to history extends only to the belief that past history actually had an objective existence, and that various events can be documented. But that's all. In seeking to refute the Marxist view of social change, they argue that just about any view about society is compatible with materialism. They write that:
". . . as Bertrand Russell observed long ago, there is no logical connection between philosophical materialism and Marxian historical materialism. Philosophical materialism is compatible with the idea that history is determined primarily by religion, sexuality or climate (which would run counter to historical materialism); and conversely, economic factors could be the primary determinants of human history even if mental events were sufficiently independent of physical events to make philosophical materialism false."(39)
. Now, it is true that philosophical materialism, the view that there is an objective external world--if taken apart from the huge mass of facts and observations about that external world which have been accumulated by humanity--does not imply any particular views about societal evolution. Indeed, it does not imply any particular views about whether the earth is round or flat or whether atoms exist or not or whether the earth is the center of the universe or whether human beings are mammals. After all, one might imagine that there is an external world, and yet that the earth is the center of the universe or that humans have no connection with other animals. But materialism naturally gives rise to the desire to investigate and change the world. If materialists stopped at the bare recognition of an external world, without examining that world, then they would be irrelevant to human thought, and materialism would be a sterile and useless dogma. In fact, materialism, to be true to itself, has always been involved in judging the world according to the information humanity has accumulated.(40)
. Let's consider an example raised by Sokal and Bricmont. They consider the question of how people first populated the Americas. The bulk of scientific investigation suggests that humans have only lived in the Americas for a relatively short time, compared to how long they have inhabited Africa, Asia and Europe. Thus it is believed that humanity migrated to the Americas from elsewhere. But the creation myths of various indigenous peoples in the Americas claim that their ancestors first appeared on the surface of the earth in nearby areas. Sokal and Bricmont criticize a British archaeologist, Roger Anyon, who has studied the Zuni people, for saying that
"science is just one of many ways of knowing the world. . . . [The Zunis' world view is] just as valid as the archeological viewpoint of what prehistory is about."(41)
But from the standpoint of Russell's discussion of materialism, how can Sokal and Bricmont criticize Anyon for violating philosophical materialism? Isn't materialism, when taken independently from the mass of information that humanity has accumulated, compatible both with the view that humanity arose in the Americas and with the view that humanity migrated to the Americas? Sokal and Bricmont hold that Anyon should take account of the full extent of today's knowledge with respect to anthropology and conclude that Anyon fails to do so, most likely, because he "quite simply allowed his political and cultural sympathies to cloud his reasoning". But haven't Sokal and Bricmont allowed their political and cultural antipathies to Marxist radicalism to cloud their reasoning when they suggest that materialism is compatible with any view of societal evolution, including that it is determined primarily by religion? The present level of knowledge of history is quite sufficient to dispense with that hypothesis.
. The ironic thing is that while the materialists Sokal and Bricmont say that materialism is compatible with any historical theory whatsoever, orthodox academic historians, who have in the main fought materialism as a dangerous doctrine, have nevertheless gradually come to pay more attention to the economic basis of historical events. Their view of economics and its influence is different from that of Marxism, but they have had to deal increasing with economics. The leftist reformist historian Eric Hobsbawm comments on this as follows:
. "The trend . . . is not in doubt. You have merely to compare a standard British inter-war textbook of European history like Grant and Temperley's Europe in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries with a standard contemporary work like John Roberts' Europe 1880-1945 to see the extraordinary transformation in this type of literature since I was a student: and I am deliberately picking a modern author who would pride himself on being a sound middle-of-the-road man, or even a shade on the conservative side. The old book begins with a brief, sixteen-page chapter on Modern Europe which sketches the state system and the balance of power and the main continental states, adding a few remarks on the French philosophes--Voltaire, Rousseau and so on--and Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. The new book, first published forty years after the old, begins with what is essentially a long chapter on the economic structure of Europe, followed by a shorter chapter on 'society: institutions and assumptions', political patterns and religion: both these chapters--before we even reach international relations--cover some sixty pages each."(42)
. Indeed, even Bertrand Russell, who is neither a philosophical nor a historical materialist, concedes a good deal of truth to historical materialism. In the same work cited by Sokal and Bricmont, where he argues that there is no logical connection between philosophical and historical materialism, he concedes that "Treated as a practical approximation, not as an exact metaphysical law, the materialistic conception of history has a very large measure of truth." In another work, he reiterates the same point of view, listing a number of ways in which he thinks historical materialism is faulty, but also stating that "In the main I agree with Marx, that economic causes are at the bottom of most of the great movements in history, not only political movements, but also those in such departments as religion, art, and morals." His criticism concerns such matters as "time-lag", which he claims materialism can't handle. He writes that "I think it may be conceded that new doctrines that have any success must bear some relation to the economic circumstances of their age, but old doctrines can persist for many centuries without any such relation of any vital kind." He also has a narrow view of what historical materialism is, asserting that "The materialist theory of history, in the last analysis, requires the assumption that every politically conscious person is governed by one single desire--the desire to increase his own share of commodities; . . ."(43) Thus the self-sacrificing zeal of socialist activists to organize the working masses would be taken by Russell as a refutation of historical materialism! It seems that Russell never made a serious study of historical materialism. But his rejection of historical materialism goes hand in hand with his rejection of philosophic materialism, and thus inadvertently is more evidence of the connection between philosophic and historical materialism.
. Sokal and Bricmont's denigration of historical materialism is one of the causes of the
shallowness of their view of the crisis of the left. They are left with nothing to say about
historical change and evolution at all, except that the future is uncertain. As we have seen, they
raise that the left has been disappointed by many recent economic and political events, but they
do not raise that this calls for deepening and rectifying the analysis of the left. Instead they retreat
to a realm of hopes and fears, separate from the materialist method.
The dialectics of nature
. Sokal and Bricmont also overlook that modern materialism differs from the materialism of the Enlightenment even with respect to science. Nowadays science has to deal with a multitude of contradictions and transformations, something which is foreign to the conception of 18th century materialism. While few scientists speak of dialectics, modern science has uncovered many surprising dialectical features of nature.
. Sokal and Bricmont, however, like most of those who work in the natural sciences, deny the role of "contradiction" in science. They write that
. "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."(44)
. Now, there are different types of contradictions. There are absurd contradictions, such as when a man living in the 20th century imagines that he is a soldier in the late 18th-century or early 19th-century armies of Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French. Scientists generally regard contradiction in this light. A common method of proof in mathematics is ratio ad absurdum: assume that what you want to prove is false, and show that this assumption leads to a contradiction, an absurdity. Within its proper range of application, it is a valid, and indeed indispensable, method of reasoning. But there is another type of contradiction, in which the opposites involved interact with each other. In history, for example, serfs and lords are in a contradiction with each other, but this proves neither that serfs and lords didn't exist, nor that feudalism didn't exist. This contradiction tells more about what exists, then about what didn't exist. In this contradiction, the very existence of one side of a contradiction presupposes the existence of the other side: there can't be lords without serfs to exploit, and peasants can't have the social status of serfs unless there are being oppressed by feudal lords. This and other social contradictions, far from being absurdities that prove that feudalism is a myth, are key to explaining how feudalism worked, how it arose, and why it ended.(45)
. Sokal and Bricmont presumably believe that there are only absurd contradictions, and therefore there can be no contradictions in quantum mechanics, or in nature generally. But it certainly looks like there are contradictions in quantum mechanics, and the only answer that they have to this is that quantum mechanics is very technical and, trust them, once you study the details, the contradictions will all vanish. But will they?
. Take one example of the question of "discontinuity" and "interconnectedness", that of whether light consists of separate particles ("photons") or is a wave. This was a major controversy in theoretical physics for some time, with Isaac Newton being the founder of a corpuscular theory of light while the development of the theory of electromagnetism eventually seemed to give victory to the wave theory. It certainly appeared to everyone that light would have to be either a wave or a particle, as the corpuscular and wave theories are contradictory. The quantum theory, however, was a startling development in this controversy; it turned out that light was, in some sense, both a wave and a particle.
. One can avoid the appearance of contradiction by saying that light is neither a wave or a particle but a different sort of entity entirely, behaving like a wave in some conditions and like a particle (the photon) in other conditions. But describing light in this way is just another way of saying that we are not dealing with an absurd contradiction. For those who believe that the only type of contradiction is absurd contradiction, all dialectical contradictions must appear as merely "apparent" contradictions. One could also say, cum Sokal and Bricmont, that knowledge of this entity requires some very technical and mathematical knowledge (as it does indeed). But the fact that wave-particle duality requires serious study doesn't mean that this phenomenon doesn't illustrate the existence of contradiction in nature.
. Now, if light were the only entity having both a wave-like and particle-like character, this might, perhaps, appear to be a mere accident. But it turns out that such dualities are characteristic of matter and energy generally. Quantum scientists have learned how to deal with this duality; they usually know when to treat an entity as a particle and when as a wave; and they can and do obtain extremely accurate results in their calculations and predictions. These successful results demonstrate, as Sokal and Bricmont point out, that physics really is dealing with an objective external world, and is not simply some ideological construct.(46) But these results do not prove that current physics has fully mastered the wave-particle duality. There are still vexing problems about the meaning of the basic concepts of quantum mechanics, which Sokal and Bricmont try to shove under the rug with their remarks that these are all technical matters.(47)Nowadays, in practical work most quantum physicists simply leave the more troubling questions of interpretation aside. But even this doesn't remove all difficulties. The problem of how to integrate quantum theory with the rest of physics, such as relativity theory, is still an active research topic, which shows that the contradictions involved in the various dualities of quantum mechanics, set aside in one form, appear in another.
. Dualities, "complementarities", and contradictions weren't at the heart of science at the time of the Enlightenment. Back then, mechanical physics was the model science, the science which had achieved the most brilliant development, as shown in the work of Isaac Newton. One might, perhaps, compare the mechanical picture of the world to a billiards game, where a group of indestructible balls bounce off each other. The balls aren't changed or altered during the game, and different positions are distinguished simply by a different number or position of the balls.The calculations needed to see how the game was evolving might be quite complex, but they involve unchanging entities that simply change their position. Mechanics sought to explain various aspects of the world by showing how they reduced to a certain arrangement of particles, each of which had no more internal life than an idealized billiard ball. It achieved a number of successes. Other fields of science used methods of investigation that were similar in a number of respects. The study of plants and animals, for example, sought to categorize species that were regarded as eternal and unchanging and completely separate, one from the other.
. Already by the 19th century, the advance of science began to revolutionize people's conceptions. In place of the idea of eternal, unchanging entities, the idea of the transformation of one entity into another began to come to the fore. Engels talks of various "immense advances in natural science", including "the three decisive discoveries--that of the cell, the transformation of energy, and the theory of evolution named after Darwin" which "have enabled our knowledge of the interconnections of natural processes to advance in giant strides."(48) Suddenly the old rigid walls between eternally unchanging entities started to come down; species evolved while the barrier between chemical, electrical, mechanical and other effects fell.(49) Not only was living nature seen as evolving from one form to another, but even the earth itself was seen as evolving. Nature, not only biologically but also geologically, was now seen to have had a history, in which one time period differed from another. All this may seem rather tame today, due to long familiarity, but it marked a definite change in worldview at the time.
. Thus dialectics penetrated into 19th century science. But mainly science became used to transformation and various dialectical phenomena without regarding this as dialectics. Even some of the modes of expression of the Hegelian idealist system of dialectics infiltrated science, but in doing so lost their connection to any system of dialectics. Engels refers to the one phase of this process in the 1830s,
"It was in this very period that Hegelian views, whether consciously or unconsciously, most profusely penetrated the most varied sciences and even leavened popular literature and the daily press, from which the average 'cultured' person derives his mental pabulum."
. But transformation alone isn't the key to dialectics, which centers on the role of the internal contradictions within an entity as the cause of an entity changing or transforming itself. Engels wrote that dialectics, and hence contradiction, could be seen in the physical world, but few scientists adopted this view. Marx and Engels stressed the need to replace the old mechanical materialism with a dialectical materialism. But the tremendous successes of mathematical methods probably encouraged mechanical materialist ideas, perhaps even what one might call a "calculational materialism", even if there was now a broader view of the role of transformation than in the earlier mechanical materialism of the 18th century.
. Then came the revolutions in physics of the early 20th century: relativity theory and quantum theory. Now contradictions abounded, such as the wave-particle duality which we mentioned above. Dialectical materialism being a negligible trend among scientists, the immediate philosophical effect of the new discoveries was to promote idealism. It was now seen that matter did not simply transform into other forms of matter, energy into other forms of energy, but that matter could transform into energy and vice versa. This additional dialectical property was taken by idealist philosophers to mean that "matter had disappeared", and with it, materialism. The surprising properties of energy quanta and subatomic particles was taken to mean that the material world had vanished.
. One of the main advocates of a subjective interpretation of quantum mechanics was the famous Danish physicist Niels Bohr, the founder of the "Copenhagen school" in quantum physics. Bohr put emphasis on the principles of duality and complementarity: in essence, on what amounted to a form of dialectical reasoning. Bohr had a good deal of success with this, since quantum phenomena are indeed dialectical. But he combined this with an idealist interpretation of quantum mechanics in which physical reality was replaced by human consciousness. He had no conception of materialist dialectics, but was philosophically inspired by psychological tracts and idealist philosophical theories like vitalism.(50)
. A number of scientists were upset by the Copenhagen school's subjective or idealist interpretations. Einstein's debates with Bohr are famous among physicists. Some physicists have worked on alternate formulations of quantum mechanics in an attempt to avoid philosophical implications that they do not like. One weakness of their effort, however, was that they usually seemed to have a view of materialism that excluded dialectics. Their attempts at reformulating quantum mechanics, while often interesting in their own right and opening up new lines of research, had much less to do with saving materialism than they imagined. Among the talented physicists involved in this work were David Bohm, who suffered persecution for his left-wing political views, and John Bell, who, despite the fact that "Bell's inequality" is sometimes taken to refute attempts at reformulating quantum mechanics, was himself a critic of the orthodox interpretation of its basic concepts.
. A bad role in these discussions was played by Soviet revisionism, especially under Stalin but later as well. While promoting the term "dialectical materialism", the official ideologists of the Soviet state actually promoted a rigid and often mechanical interpretation of materialism.(51) For example, at one time, the Soviet revisionists suspected that various resonance phenomena in chemistry contradicted materialism; and they also believed for some time that investigating the role of genes and chromosomes in heredity violated materialism.
. Sokal and Bricmont's book represents yet another twist to the story. As physicists have gotten
use to quantum phenomena, it now appears to such orthodox quantum physicists as Sokal and
Bricmont that quantum mechanics merely describes some very technical and complicated
phenomena of the material world. They are apparently inpatient of discussion of the vexed
questions concerning the foundations of quantum mechanics, possibly because they don't see
such discussions as of any importance to their own research work. Thus it turns out that, while
quantum mechanics was the main field of science used earlier this century to denigrate
materialism, at the end of the 20th century two quantum physicists end up writing a book
defending materialism from postmodernism and relativist skepticism of one sort or another.
Does science teach anything but technical lessons?
. However, the moment one goes beyond saying that quantum phenomena are very technical, one can't avoid seeing that contradictions have appeared in the most general and powerful laws of physics. This is one of the major differences between the science of the Enlightenment and that of the 20th century, and every indication is that contradiction is here to stay and will be a feature of 21st century science as well. It is also one of the features that has interested masses of people. It is notable that many of the postmodernist passages about science cited by Sokal and Bricmont, while meaningless or false as Sokal and Bricmont correctly point out, refer to the contradictions revealed in science. The first stage of wisdom is to show that the postmodernists don't know what they are talking about. The second stage would be to note that the postmodernists are playing the old game of referring to dialectical phenomena in order to negate materialism: until the Marxist development of dialectical materialism, dialectics was generally associated with idealist philosophies. The third stage would be to show that only materialism can provide a correct way to deal with dialectical phenomena. But Sokal and Bricmont fail to progress to the second or third stages, instead fleeing back to the good old days of the Enlightenment.
. For Fashionable Nonsense, all the fascinating new phenomena in science are just technical
matters. Sokal and Bricmont don't see that the modern discoveries in science might be helpful to
people in developing a deeper understanding of the world. Their only advice is not to worry too
much about the natural sciences. The fourth point of their prescriptions for good thinking is
"Don't ape the natural sciences". They write that "The social sciences have their own problems
and their own methods; they are not obliged to follow each 'paradigm shift' (be it real or
imaginary) in physics or biology."(52) This is not wrong in itself, if it is taken as referring to each
small advance in the natural sciences, but it is their main view on the question. At most, they also
see a role for pondering "hidden ambiguities" in the sciences which "philosophical reflection"
might "clarify".(53) But that's all. In fact, the overall picture shown by the natural sciences must
be taken account of by anyone who has a serious attitude to the world. In the Enlightenment,
Newtonian physics played a major role in encouraging materialism and belief in the power of
reason. Today, it is a serious question among many people as to what to conclude from the
picture of the material world shown by modern science. Sokal and Bricmont evade this issue.
Dialectics, motion, and infinitesimals
. As we have seen, Sokal and Bricmont's denial that the advance of science since the Enlightenment has added something essentially new to materialism is connected to their denial of the role of contradiction and dialectics in science. Therefore it may be in order to dwell a bit more on the role of contradictions in nature.
. It is a commonplace of literature on dialectics to point out that motion itself is a contradiction. When an object is in motion, it is, at any one time, simultaneously at a definite place, and not at that place. Moreover, over 2,000 years ago, the philosopher Zeno showed how a series of contradictions arose out of the idea of motion ("Zeno's paradoxes"). His intention seemed to be to show that motion must be an illusion of the senses, as the school of philosophy he adhered to believed that the real "being" of the universe was timeless and unchanging. From the materialist point of view, which would start from the premise that motion is a fact of nature, these paradoxes would instead support the idea that motion does, in fact, involve dialectical contradiction.
. It might be thought that science has, however, long since resolved the paradoxes of motion. Mathematics, notably the differential and integral calculus, has long learned how to take account of motion. Physics, in its turn, doesn't talk about a particle both being at a point, and not at that point, but about the position and the velocity of a particle at any one definite time being two separate and distinct parameters. The modern advocates of dialectics, such as Marxist materialists, continued to insist that motion cannot be explained without looking at the internal contradictions of the system that is changing. But many other people might have thought that the accomplishments of calculus and physics had sufficed to banish contradiction from the idea of ordinary motion, at least.
. Then came 20th century physics. For one thing, the famous Heisenberg uncertainly relations connected the position and the velocity (or rather, momentum) of a particle in a way that was completely unexpected. For an object of an ordinary size, one can determine its position and velocity simultaneously to any reasonable degree of accuracy, and the position and velocity at any one moment remain distinct and separate. For small particles, which manifest quantum effects, the more accurate the determination of the position, the more one has disturbed the velocity of the particle; conversely, the more accurate the determination of the velocity, the more one has disturbed the position. This occurs in a strange way that goes against everyday experience with large objects, and so it requires study of a good account of quantum mechanics to get a feel for this phenomenon. For the purposes of this article, suffice it to say that in quantum mechanics, the idea of the position of a particle becomes more indefinite, and this indefiniteness is related directly to the velocity of the particle. Indeed, it is related in a precise way shown by the mathematical formulation of the uncertainty principle. This is a dialectical relationship of two opposites (on the one hand position, and on the other, motion, which consists of a change in position, or negation of the previous position). The paradoxes of motion are back, and they are even more profound and puzzling than those raised by Zeno. Moreover, they are discussed and studied by people who are otherwise completely contemptuous of the idea that motion involves simultaneously being at, and yet not at, a definite position at a definite time.
. But if nature has turned out to be a source of contradictions about motion, it may be thought that in mathematics, at least, everything is clear. Here, it might be believed, all contradictions have been banished. True, in the early history of calculus, the dread "infinitesimal" was used: infinitesimals were numbers which were infinitely small, so to speak, and yet not zero. This is impossible for any ordinary number, and so what were these things? "Ghosts of departed quantities", as the anti-materialist Bishop Berkeley said in ridiculing the mathematicians of his time? But, Sokal and Bricmont assure us, the infinitesimal was banished from mathematics long ago, and everything has "been well understood for over 150 years".(54) This assertion occurs in their comments on some painful passages from Deleuze on infinitesimals and the calculus. They say:
". . . At two places in this book [Difference and Repetition--JG], Deleuze discusses classical problems in the conceptual foundations of differential and integral calculus. Since the birth of this branch of mathematics in the seventeenth century through the works of Newton and Leibniz, cogent objections were raised against the use of 'infinitesimal' quantities such as dx and dy. These problems were solved by the work of d'Alembert around 1760 and Cauchy around 1820, who introduced the rigorous notion of limit--a concept that has been taught in all calculus textbooks since the middle of the nineteenth century."(55)
. Deleuze's absurdities aside, Sokal and Bricmont are themselves factually wrong. For one thing, infinitesimals, far from being solely of historical interest, are once again used in mathematics.(56) Since the early 1960s, Abraham Robinson and some other mathematicians have developed a field called "non-standard analysis", in which infinitesimals are once again used in the solution of the problems of the differential and integral calculus and a number of other fields of mathematics. This time the infinitesimal rests on a solid, logically rigorous, foundation. This is not the work of some cranks, but is respectable, orthodox mathematical work. So far, non-standard analysis only plays a peripheral role in mathematics, but one can still say of the infinitesimals that, "they're back".
. Moreover, infinitesimals were never fully banished from mathematics. Instead, they were, so to speak, the "illegal aliens" of mathematics: banned in theory, in practice they were always employed on some field of work or other.
. True, Sokal and Bricmont insist that the method of limits eliminated the infinitesimal. They are presumably referring not just to the use of limits, but the particular epsilon-delta method of dealing with limits that is generally used in most first-year calculus courses today. Robinson, who made a study of the history of infinitesimal methods, pointed out that while d'Alembert set forward the idea of eliminating infinitesimals from the calculus, Cauchy was still making use of them in 1820; Cauchy did not replace infinitesimals by the use of limits, but "regarded his theory of infinitely small quantities as a satisfactory foundation for the theory of limits". It was finally Weierstrass, later in the 19th century, who succeeded in getting most mathematicians to accept the epsilon-delta method of handling limits.(57) Until then, it seems to me, calculus had resembled quantum mechanics, in that mathematicians obtained a plethora of accurate results and made many new discoveries on the basis of methods whose foundations were theoretically troublesome. Nevertheless, the eventual replacement of infinitesimals by the epsilon-delta method of defining limits solved most of the difficulties that had worried mathematicians about the logical basis of the calculus. There was one problem, however: infinitesimals proved harder to remove from mathematics than was expected. As Robinson pointed out:
". . . with the spread of Weierstrass' ideas, arguments involving infinitesimal increments, which survived, particularly in differential geometry and in several branches of applied mathematics, began to be taken automatically as a kind of shorthand for corresponding developments by means of the epsilon, delta-approach (or, later on, for some more sophisticated method). Usually, this assumption has turned out to be correct although in several cases its justification was complicated and hard to achieve."(58)
. Here Robinson refers to the fact that, with respect to certain fields of mathematics, mathematicians continued to obtain results via infinitesimals. They didn't obtain results by other methods and then abbreviate them by use of infinitesimals. Instead they continued to reason with infinitesimals, with their mathematical conscience soothed by the thought that probably the infinitesimals could be replaced by other methods, although they didn't necessarily see the point of actually bothering to do so. In fact, when discussing differential geometry, Robinson puts it as follows:
"Even now there are many classical results in Differential Geometry which have never been established in any other way [than through use of infinitesimals--JG], the assumption being that somehow the rigorous but less intuitive, epsilon,delta-method would lead to the same result." He adds that "So far as one can see without a complete check this assumption is usually correct." That is, there hasn't been a complete check.(59)
. Indeed, even in the second half of the 20th century, work continued on the problem of replacing infinitesimal methods. It is not possible simply to mechanically translate any mathematical assertion that uses infinitesimals into an argument that uses the epsilon-delta method. New methods, such as Temple's theory of "generalized functions" and Laurent Schwartz's "theory of distributions", had to be developed to deal with particular uses of infinitely small and large numbers as new uses popped up.(60) So there is no one simple replacement for infinitesimals, and the increase in logical rigor obtained by eliminating infinitesimals is sometimes accompanied by a loss of intuitive clarity. Indeed, the development of non-standard analysis was motivated in part by the hope that resurrecting infinitesimals might restore the intuitive content of some mathematical methods and help achieve new results.(61) However, although non-standard analysis allows direct use of infinitesimals in a mathematically precise and logically rigorous way, it comes at the price of adding quite a few complexities to the naive idea of infinitesimals.
. The persistence of infinitesimals in mathematics is a sign that motion, and the concepts that
express motion, really do involve dialectical contradictions. Sokal and Bricmont to the contrary,
it isn't all cut-and-dried. Nor is this a bad thing. Recognition of the contradictions in nature can
suggest new lines of endeavor or new things to investigate. It does not replace hard work on
scientific problems; nor does the return of infinitesimals mean that the important work on the
foundations of calculus since the original days of the infinitesimal could have been avoided by
simply recognizing that motion is a contradiction. But dialectics provides a better framework for
comprehending the results of scientific work than mechanical materialism, one more in line with
the results of modern science. One can, of course, do scientific and mathematical work while
closing one's eyes to all philosophical implications and trying to explain away all contradictions
as merely technical matters. Wouldn't this be equivalent, however, to walking through an art
museum with one's eyes closed?
The Enlightenment and the masses
. So far, we have discussed two of the ways in which the hearkening of Sokal and Bricmont back to the Enlightenment reflects the limitations of their materialism: the refusal to extend materialism to the sphere of social relations, and the denial of contradictions in nature. Their idea the left should "reclaim its Enlightenment roots" also ignores the narrow class basis of the Enlightenment.
. Even the most left of the Enlightenment figures did not look to the radical action of the masses for social progress. For them, the working people were an inert, if oppressed, mass. The French materialists of the 18th century undermined the ideological basis of the old regime and paved the way for the historic French revolution that began in 1789, but they themselves did not call for mass struggle. No doubt their ideas influenced public opinion and a relatively widespread and illegal literature that increasingly developed as the French monarchy decayed, but they did not look towards the mass movement as a force for change, and certainly didn't look towards mass revolution. For example, Plekhanov points out that Friedrich Grimm, a German associate of the French materialists, lived to see the overthrow of the monarchy by the popular uprising of August 10, 1792--and recoiled from it. And Plekhanov discusses the views of Holbach, one of the French materialists whose writings were almost always "imbued with an inflexible hatred for despotism", and says:
". . . would Holbach's behavior have been any better [than Grimm's--JG] after August 10? [Holbach died in June 1789, not even seeing the fall of the Bastille in July of that year.--JG]...
. "Holbach had a respect for liberty, but he was afraid of 'disturbances', and was convinced that, 'in politics just as in medicine, drastic remedies were always dangerous'. He would have willingly had dealings with a monarch, if only the latter were in the least 'virtuous'.Though he said that such sovereigns were very rare meteors, he was constantly dreaming of a 'sage on the throne'. There was a moment, during the ministry of Turgot, when he thought that his dream had come true. He dedicated his book L'Ethocratie to Louis XVI, `just, humane, and beneficent Monarch; friend of truth, virtue, and simplicity; enemy of flattery, vice, pomp, and tyranny;...', and so on and so forth. He may have consequently changed his opinion of Louis XVI, but his fear of the 'disorderly popular movement remained with him. . . . The tyranny of democracy is 'the cruellest and the least reasonable' of all tyrannies. In the class struggle in ancient Athens, Holbach saw only 'mob violence'. The first English revolution aroused in him only horror of the 'religious fanaticism' of the people."(62)
. The Enlightenment philosophers' attitude to the masses reflected their class basis. The work of the French materialists was part of the preparation for a revolution that would clear the way for bourgeois domination of France. They may have been philosophical revolutionaries who desired the liberation of all the people, but the framework of their ideas did not go beyond glorified pictures of a coming bourgeois society. Engels describes the fate of the ideals of the "great French philosophers of the eighteenth century" as follows:
. "The great men who in France were clearing the minds of men for the coming revolution themselves acted in an extremely revolutionary fashion. . . . All previous forms of society and government, all the old ideas handed down by tradition, were flung into the lumber-room as irrational; the world had hitherto allowed itself to be guided solely by prejudices; everything in the past deserved only pity and contempt. Now for the first time appeared the light of day; henceforth, superstition, injustice, privilege and oppression were to be superseded by eternal truth, eternal justice, equality grounded in Nature and the inalienable rights of man.
. "We know today that this kingdom of reason was nothing more than the idealized kingdom of the bourgeoisie; that eternal justice found its realization in bourgeois justice; that equality reduced itself to bourgeois equality before the law; that bourgeois property was proclaimed as one of the essential rights of man; and that the government of reason, the Social Contract of Rousseau, came into existence and could only come into existence as a bourgeois democratic republic. No more than their predecessors could the great thinkers of the eighteenth century pass beyond the limits imposed on them by their own epoch."(63)
The rise of Marxism
. As the 19th century progressed, the bourgeoisie came to power throughout Europe, while a new revolutionary movement, that of the organized working class, was born. At first, the criticism of the new bourgeois society was based, on its theoretical side, on attempts to extend the ideas of the Enlightenment and take them further. But a materialism that subjects the bourgeois institutions of exploitation and oppression to criticism could hardly restrict itself to the ideas derived from the old struggle against monarchy and aristocracy; nor could a class struggle of the working masses be based on the tradition of disdain for mass radicalism. The old materialism was insufficient.
. By the middle of the 19th century, however, a new materialism arose. It shared with the old materialism such basic defining features of materialism as upholding the existence of an external world and the ability of human beings to obtain knowledge of this world. But it had absorbed the new advances of science and history; had wrested dialectics away from the most advanced idealist philosophy of the time; and had emerged from the midst of the revolutionary struggles against oppression. This was Marxist materialism, which was a dialectical and historical materialism.
. Of course, not all 19th century materialism was Marxist materialism, any more than all Enlightenment figures were materialists and opponents of the monarchies of their countries. In the 19th century, a limited and mechanical materialism was the dominant materialism in scientific circles, and academic circles were mainly involved in the struggle against materialism. Most of the defenders of the new materialism were class-conscious workers and socialist activists, and there were only a few theorists of the new materialism among writers on philosophical questions. But Marxist materialism was the most advanced materialism of the period, the only materialism that could take account of the new tasks of the bourgeois era.
-- no mere political change, but only a profound social revolution, could emancipate the working class, and yet the working class had to organize a political party and seize state power in order to inaugurate this social revolution;
-- the working class had to be politically organized to achieve its aims, and yet the trade unions and the economic struggle were of tremendous importance for this political organization; and
-- the working class movement was international in essence, but proletarian internationalism included the resolute support of the right to self-determination of oppressed nations.
. Leninism, the struggle to actually build socialist countries, the attempt of the Third International
to build mass revolutionary communist parties around world, and the major role of this
movement in the world anti-colonial revolt, amounted to a high point of this movement. But the
socialist movement, like everything else, develops dialectically. The greatest victories and widest
extension of the movement would prove the precursor to its deepest and most agonizing crises.
The current crisis
. For example, the Soviet regime created by Bolshevik Revolution would eventually lose its revolutionary character, and a state-capitalist regime was consolidated under Stalin. Assessing the state-capitalist regimes in Russia, China, Cuba, and elsewhere is one of the major questions raised by the experience of the 20th century revolutionary movement. Were these regimes really communist regimes, as they claimed, and so does the oppressive nature of these regimes, and the eventual collapse of most of them, show that Marxism is flawed and socialism is impossible? Or does the class structure of these regimes verify their state-capitalist character, and does their evolution towards private capitalism verify the Marxist views about the nature of state-capitalist economies?
. If materialism is to survive in the 21st century, it has to deal with such issues and other vexed problems of our times. It cannot restrict itself to repeating that there is an external world, however useful this is in the struggle against postmodernist absurdity. Nor can Marxist materialism restrict itself to repeating the basic principles of Marxism, however useful this is in order to refute various caricatures of Marxism. It also must develop further by analyzing the new conditions of the class structure, the experience of the communist movement of the 20th century, and the distortions introduced into Marxism by the state-capitalist ideologists (such as the Stalinists, the backers of Castroism, etc.). The slogan can't be to go back two centuries to the old materialism, but forward to the challenges of the future.
. For this reason, we at Communist Voice have spent a lot of time looking at the economic analysis of the Soviet, Cuban, and Chinese regimes, and of how they have evolved over the years. This work isn't based on simply pointing out that these regimes followed bad policies, but on examining what the actual class structures in these countries are and on examining the nature of their state sectors. It has verified not only the state-capitalist nature of these so-called "communist" regimes, but that Marxism-Leninism can only survive as an anti-revisionist doctrine that combats the distortion of Marxist principles made by the apologists of these regimes.
. Sokal and Bricmont evade any direct assessment of the vexed issues of the twentieth century revolutionary movement. They retreat to ambiguity via their repeated appeals to unspecified "ideals of justice and equality" or "justice and progress", which is their only answer to the type of society they think the left should work for. Do they talk about "ideals of justice and progress" because they believe that the socialist goal is flawed and all that is left is seeking to try to make capitalist society live up to the old Enlightenment ideals of rationality and progress? Or do they use such terms simply as a way of saying socialism without scaring away bourgeois readers, which is perhaps why they usually talk of "realism" instead of "materialism"? Or do they think that the left can overcome the differences between different political positions, thus uniting liberals, reformists, and non-dogmatic socialists, if everyone simply agrees to unite around what they supposedly have in common, their humanistic ideals?
. But by appealing to "ideals" rather than calling for a materialist assessment of what has happened to the revolutionary and workers' movements of this century, Sokal and Bricmont are following the post-modernist style of replacing a study of facts by an assertion of "values and beliefs".They object to postmodernist "relativism" with respect to natural science, but when it comes to social issues, they see nothing but "more-or-less informed speculation" in which one asserts one's own ideals. It is no accident that they that say that they recognize that "many 'postmodern' ideas, expressed in a moderate form, provide a needed correction to naive modernism".(64) Their specific criticisms of Marxism, such as their denigration of historical materialism, owe much to postmodernism. They join with postmodernism in denouncing Marxism as "scientism", which they define "as the illusion that simplistic but supposedly 'objective' or 'scientific' methods will allow us to solve very complex problems'.(65)
. Materialism can only be a force when it deals with the burning questions of the epoch and is
attached to a social movement. But for Sokal and Bricmont, it is "scientism" to believe that
materialism can provide any basis for the popular struggle. It's not just that they don't have
solutions to the questions raised by the fall of the state-capitalist regimes, the bourgeois reality of
independence in the post-colonial world, and the subordination of the mass left to reformist and
social-democratic politics. What's notable is that they don't call for materialism to deal with these
issues, and to apply the scientific method to their solution.
In defense of materialism
. The best and the worst of Sokal and Bricmont's attitude is expressed in the same passage where they chide the postmodernists for their "relativism" removing the obstacles to obscurantism and religious fundamentalism:
. "At a time when superstitions, obscurantism, and nationalist and religious fanaticism are spreading in many parts of the world--including the 'developed' West--it is irresponsible, to say the least, to treat with such casualness what has historically been the principal defense against these follies, namely a rational vision of the world. It is doubtless not the intention of postmodernist authors to favor obscurantism, but it is an inevitable consequence of their approach."(66)
. On one hand, the passage breathes passion against the postmodernists for their being, even if inadvertently, part of a reactionary wave around the world, a wave that must be fought. And passion in refuting postmodernism is sorely needed. But on the other hand, it is an astonishing denial of world history to say that "a rational vision of the world", and not the mass movement of the oppressed for social change, is the principal defense against reaction. The "rational vision of the world" becomes a force only when it becomes associated with the class struggle of the masses against their oppression.
(1)Bruce Robbins and Andrew Ross responded on behalf of the editorial board of Social Text to Sokal's revelation that his article was a hoax in a statement published in the July/August 1996 issue of the journal Lingua Franca. They pointed out that one of the editors "suspected that Sokal's parody was nothing of the sort, and that his admission represented a change of heart, or a folding of his intellectual resolve." Bruce Robbins, writing in the September/October 1996 issue of Tikkun, went still further and approvingly cited someone who wrote that Sokal's article had "proposed that superstring theory [a speculative new theory in physics--JG] might help liberate science from 'dependence on the concept of objective truth'." In reference to this, Robbins claimed that the editors of Social Text had thought that Sokal had a good point in this interpretation, "and we still do." (emphasis added) (Return to text)
(2) Of course, having a basic grounding in mathematics and physics is helpful, or even essential, for understanding a number of the examples that Sokal and Bricmont use; the more background one has, the more ludicrous the examples will appear. Sokal and Bricmont try hard to help the reader by providing, for example, simple explanations of a number of technical terms which are misused by Jacques Lacan and other postmodernist authors. But this is hard to do in a few words. Those readers who can't verify for themselves various of the technical examples in the book may, however, be interested in the fact that no one has disputed these examples, not at least in the debates that I have seen. Based on my own assessment of these examples, I am not surprised by this in the least. (Text)
(3) Fashionable Nonsense, pp. 212-13. (Appendix A of this book reprints Sokal's spoof article from Social Text.) (Text)
(4) Ibid. p. 235. (Text)
(5) This was his article in the September/October 1996 issue of Tikkun that I have referred to in an earlier footnote, where he maintained that Sokal's spoof was actually a serious argument against the idea of "objective truth". By the way, this article and many others in the debate can be found at. Sokal's web site at< http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/ >. (Text)
(6) Tikkun, November/December 1996, p. 58. (Text)
(7) (8) (9) (10) (11) (12) (13) (14) (15) (16) (17) (18) (19) (20) (21) (22) (23) (24) (25) (26) (27) (28) (29) (30) (31) (32) (33) (34) (35) (36) (37) (38) (39) (40) (41) (42) (43)
(7)See in the Winter 1997 issue of Dissent, pp. 107-110. (Text)
(8)Social Text, Spring/Summer 1996, p. 4. (Text)
(9)Ibid., p. 5. (Text)
(10)See their reply to Sokal in the July/August 1996 Lingua Franca. (Text)
(11)Higher Superstition has a number of cutting attacks on the philosophical absurdities of postmodernism, but they aren't directly discussed in Social Text. It has, in addition, a number of sharply-expressed opinions of varying quality on a variety of social, environmental, and political issues, which Social Text also ignores. In the course of their book, Gross and Levitt also display a grudge against Marxism and revolutionism, and pose as opposed to the extremes of the right and the left. But Social Text wasn't concerned with their anti-Marxist bias, since postmodernism has its own anti-Marxist biases; postmodernism is, in effect, "post-Marxism". Nor could political moderation bother Social Text; as we shall see, the shriller the call of Social Text for a new "rationality", the tamer its basic political stand. (Text)
(12)"Making Transparencies: Seeing Through the Science Wars", Social Text, p. 154. (Text)
(13)"What is Science Studies for and Who Cares?" in Social Text, p. 120. (Text)
(14)"The Gloves Come Off: Shattered Alliances in Science and Technology Studies" in Social Text, pp, 81, 85, 88. Gross and Levitt do devote a few pages in their book to the hiring, firing and promotion process in universities and propose that scientists should take part in judging work done in the humanities that claims to analyze the content of science. But Winner doesn't discuss the pros and cons of this proposal, but instead pretends that The Higher Superstition demanded the elimination of all "science and technology studies", to "shut the whole thing down". It is true, however, that Gross and Levitt do harbor a grudge against the academic positions of the postmodernists; they do not have the same charitable attitude to their ideological opponents in the "science wars" as Frederick Engels. (In his preface of 1885 to his famous book Anti-Duhring that exposed Duhring's pretensions, Engels condemned the actions of the University of Berlin against their one-time instructor Duhring.) (Text)
(15)Kristina Zarlengo, "Idiotsavants?" in Salon, Nov. 2, 1998. (Text)
(16)Fashionable Nonsense, p. 210. (Text)
(17)Ibid., p. 25. (Text)
(18)Ibid., p. 109. (Text)
(19)Ibid., p. 58. (Text)
(20)Ibid., p. 85, emphasis as in the original. (Text)
(21)Ibid., p. 86. (Text)
(22)Ibid., p. 88, in footnote 113. (Text)
(23)Ibid., p. 88. (Text)
(24)Ibid. p. 93. (Text)
(25)Ibid., pp. 96-7, footnote 123. (Text)
(26)Ibid., p. 77. (Text)
(27)The August 1, 1998 issue of Communist Voice contained an exchange of views about materialism. It reprinted an article from the CWV's Sarah entitled "A review of Kuhn's book 'The Structure of Scientific Revolutions'/Some thoughts on the Left and modern philosophy" as well as a critique of this article by Mark, Detroit, entitled "Chicago Workers' Voice discards the Marxist 'paradigm' ". (Text)
(28)Fashionable Nonsense, p. 72. (Text)
(29)Ibid., p. 75. (Text)
(30)This latter view of Kuhn's dovetails with the way that the Chicago Workers' Voice looks at things. Sarah's article on Kuhn and the left discusses the concepts of Marxism and socialism as meaning simply what they are taken to be by certain groups. She doesn't say what she believes them to really be. The CWV came out of a political trend that denounced what the apologists of state-capitalist regimes (such as the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia yesterday and China and Cuba today) called "Marxism" as "revisionism", and it denounced what they called "socialism" as a new form of state-capitalism. The CWV has retreated from such a sharp break with revisionism and state-capitalism, seeing that anti-revisionists are such a small minority in the left today. Sarah now thinks that the errors of the revisionists were probably not "simply rigid interpretations" of Marxism, but Marxism itself, and apparently she feels the same way about the official "socialism" of the state-capitalist regimes. So on one hand, she feels the need for "a new way of looking at many things", but for now, she takes official Marxism as real Marxism. She doesn't see any need to give any evidence for these views, or to refute the detailed work which supports the anti-revisionist position; she believes that Kuhn's general work on paradigms backs her up. For Kuhn, scientific truth is whatever the scientists say it is, and for Sarah, Marxism and socialism are whatever the larger left forces say they are. (Text)
(31)Fashionable Nonsense, Ibid., p. 206. (Text)
(32)From "Sokal's Reply to Social Text Editorial" in the correspondence section of Lingua Franca for July/August 1996. (Text)
(33)"Truth or Consequences: A Brief Response to Robbins", Tikkun, November/December 1996, p. 58. (Text)
(34)Fashionable Nonsense, p. 201. (Text)
(35)Ibid., pp. 185-9. (Text)
(36)Ibid., p. 211. (Text)
(37)Ibid., pp.210, 211. (Text)
(38)An excellent account of the attempt of the French materialists to analyze human society can be found in Plekhanov's The Development of the Monist View of History. A thumbnail summary of Plekhanov's description can be found in Communist Voice, vol. 4, #3, Aug. 1, 1998 (in the article "Chicago Workers' Voice discards the Marxist `paradigm' "). Another and even more detailed account of the French materialists of the 18th century, and in particular of the views of Holbach and Helvetius, can be found in Plekhanov's "Essays on the History of Materialism" in vol. 2 of his Selected Philosophical Works. (Text)
(39)Fashionable Nonsense, p. 200. (Text)
(40)As a matter of fact, materialism itself couldn't arise until humanity had accumulated a great deal of experience. This was necessary even to have a conception of what a "material" cause is as opposed to a spiritual cause. Thus the very idea of a logically pure materialism, separate from all concrete knowledge of the world, is suspect. (Text)
(41)Fashionable Nonsense, p. 195. (Text)
(42)Hobsbawm, Eric, "Has History Made Progress?" in On History, 1997, p. 63. (Text)
(43)See Russell's The Theory and Practice of Bolshevism, Part II: "Bolshevik Theory", 2nd edition, 1949, Chapter I. "The Materialist Theory of History", pp. 81, 84 and Freedom versus Organization: 1814-1914, 1934, Chapter XVIII "Dialectical Materialism", pp. 197-200. Russell's view that materialism means that everyone is motivated by the search for personal wealth has been refuted many times in advance by Marxist writers. For example, in work The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx criticized the petty-bourgeois democratic party of the time, but added:
"Only one must not form the narrow-minded notion that the petty bourgeoisie, on principle, wishes to enforce an egoistic class interest. Rather, it believes that the special conditions of its emancipation are the general conditions within the frame of which alone modern society can be saved and the class struggle avoided. Just as little must one imagine that the democratic representatives are indeed all shopkeepers or enthusiastic champions of shopkeepers. According to their education and their individual position they may be as far apart as heaven from earth. What makes them representatives of the petty bourgeoisie is the fact that in their minds they do not get beyond the limits which the latter do not get beyond in life, that they are consequently driven, theoretically, to the same problems and solutions to which material interest and social position drive the latter practically. This is, in general, the relationship between the political and literaryrepresentatives of a class and the class they represent." (Sec. III, pp. 40-41) (Text)
(44) Fashionable Nonsense, p. 187, footnote 250. (Text)
(45)Strictly speaking, it isn't so much that there are two types of contradictions, but that under particular conditions a contradiction may be absurd, while under other conditions, it can express something profound about the world. Consider, for example, the contradiction between life and death. If, say, Mr. A is trying to prove that he didn't commit some act on Jan. 15, 1995 because Mr. B did it, and if it turns out that Mr. B died after an lingering illness in a hospital in 1990, then Mr. A is in trouble. It would be absurd to imagine that Mr. B could have committed the act five years after he died, and all references to a dialectical relationship between life and death would be in vain. But if we wanted to find, instead, the precise moment when Mr. B died (for example, it could be a question of deciding when to turn off machines providing medical support to Mr. B), then the situation is different, and suddenly the boundary between life and death can become a very tricky thing. Here we are concerned with a situation in which we are no longer dealing with life and death as static and separate things, but with motion, with a person passing from one state into its opposite, from life into death, and contradictions start to abound. To this day, there are legal, medical and biological arguments about precisely when death occurs. Similarly, there are arguments about precisely when human life begins (and it becomes ugly because reactionaries seek to use these arguments to ban abortion): at the moment of conception, at the quickening, at birth, or whenever? Moreover, the reason that Mr. B died at a certain time presumably has something to do with the outcome of a struggle (a "contradiction") between those factors keeping him alive and those factors (the disease) that is sapping his strength and killing him.
. Mechanical materialists only see absurdity in contradiction. In other contradictions, they merely
see the difference of two separate things. They may even recognize the existence of opposites
(for example, that plus and minus in mathematics are opposites), but they don't see these
opposites as in a contradiction. Thus, scientists and mathematicians deal with many pairs of
opposites in practice, while most of them deny the existence of dialectical or material
contradictions, contradictions of the real world (as opposed to absurd contradictions). Of course,
the recognition of contradictions would only be the first step of dialectics; dialectics leads one to
investigate and analyze these contradictions. (Text)
(46) (47) (48) (49) (50) (51) (52) (53) (54) (55) (56) (57) (58) (59) (60) (61)
(46)Fashionable Nonsense, p. 57. (Text)
(47)See, for example, the celebrated question of "the collapse of the wave function". (Text)
(48)Engels, Frederick, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1976, see section II, pp. 44, 24, 43. (Text)
(49)True, various engines, such as windmills and water wheels, had long used one form of natural power to create a different sort of power. Now, however, the law of conservation of energy was based on seeing that different and separate powers and forces were, on one hand, all connected by being simply forms of energy, and on the other hand, were in constant transformation from one form to another. (Text)
(50)David Wick, The Infamous Boundary: Seven Decades of Heresy in Quantum Mechanics, pp.185-8, discusses the philosophical sources which seem to have captured Bohr's imagination, but Wick himself has no conception of dialectics. (Text)
(51)This was in line with the revisionist view that the state ownership of industry in the Soviet Union proved that it was socialist. Instead of examining the relationship of the state sector to the working class, the revisionist apologists reduced socialism to simply state ownership. This is a materialism of sorts, but it is mechanical materialism. A number of articles in the Communist Voice discuss the theories of Marx and Lenin and show that revisionism has to trample on them in order to justify the oppressive practice of the Stalinist state-capitalist order which consolidated on the grave of the Russian revolution. Dialectical materialism would orient one to search for the underlying reasons for the degeneration and collapse of the state-capitalist countries like Russia in their internal contradictions; it would orient one towards making a serious study of their class structures and of their relation to the Soviet state sector. The mechanical materialism of the Soviet revisionists and their apologists can't see further than the struggle between the market capitalist countries and the state-capitalist countries; it attributes the problems of the state-capitalist countries mainly to outside pressure or to general backwardness. It looks at the internal politics and economy of these countries from the point of view of over-simplified definition: if industry is owned by the state, then by definition it supposedly can't be run by a new bourgeoisie. Dialectical materialism shows how systems change over time, while the mechanical materialism of the revisionist apologists insists that since 20th-century state-capitalism differs from the mid-19th century capitalism of Britain, it must not be capitalism. (Text)
(52)Fashionable Nonsense, p. 187. (Text)
(53)Ibid., p. 185. (Text)
(54)Ibid., p. 165. (Text)
(55)Ibid., pp. 160-61. (Text)
(56)Although for brevity I usually just talk of "infinitesimals", not only are infinitely small numbers involved, but infinitely large numbers as well. The reciprocal of a small number is a large number, and so the reciprocal of an infinitesimal or infinitely small number would be an infinitely large number. These infinitely large numbers are not the kind of infinite cardinal and ordinal numbers used in set theory, but numbers that obey the usual laws of arithmetic calculation. (Text)
(57)Robinson, Abraham, Non-Standard Analysis, 1996, Chapter X "Concerning the History of the Calculus", sections 10.4 "Lagrange and d'Alembert", 10.5 "Cauchy", and 10.6 "Bolzano, Weierstrass, and after". (Text)
(58)Robinson, p. 277. ["Epsilon" and "delta" appear as Greek letters in the original, as they do in the CV journal as well, but in posting this article on a web-site in HTML format, they have been spelled out to avoid having these letters appear in an unpredictable way on some browsers.], (Text)
(59)Robinson, p. 83. (Text)
(60)For example, these theories have ben used to provide a mathematically rigorous interpretation of Dirac's delta function (Dirac being a prominent quantum physicist). This function is zero everywhere but at the origin, but has an integral equal to one. It is not hard to show that this is impossible behavior for any ordinary function, but the delta function is regarded intuitively as a function whose value is infinite at the origin. If, as Sokal and Bricmont insist, "a rigorous exposition has existed for more than 150 years" (p. 163, footnote 212) that eliminated all use of infinitesimals and infinitely large numbers, it would be difficult to understand why 20th century mathematicians and physicists like Temple, Schwartz and Dirac were unaware of this fact. (Text)
(61)One mathematician working with infinitesimal methods writes as follows
". . . all the results we obtain can be proved by standard methods [i.e without infinitesimals, etc.--JG]. Therefore, the subject can only be claimed to be of importance insofar as it leads to simpler, more accessible expositions or (more important) to mathematical discoveries.
. "As to the first, the reader must be the judge. The best evidence for the second is the Bernstein-Robinson theory of invariant subspaces of infinite dimensional linear spaces, which settled a question that had remained open for many years. Quite simple standard proofs of their results now exist. Nevertheless, we develop part of their theory not only because this was the path of discovery, but also because it gives us an opportunity to exhibit the truly beautiful idea of approximating an infinite dimensional space from above by a space to which the results of finite dimensional linear algebra are applicable." (Applied Nonstandard Analysis, Martin Davis, 1977, Introduction, section 1. Why nonstandard Analysis? p. 1)
. So what he says is that, although it can be shown that every result obtained using infinitesimals
(if the reasoning is in accord with the rigorous requirements of "non-standard analysis") can be
obtained without infinitesimals, using infinitesimals may result in much easier proofs or even so
spur the imagination of mathematicians that they make new discoveries. And he gives an
example, in which mathematicians were able, by use of the nonstandard methods, to make a
discovery by transferring various ideas that make sense for a finite dimensional space to an
infinite dimensional one. (Text)
(62) (63) (64) (65) (66)
(62)Plekhanov, Essays on the History of Materialism, ch. I. "Holbach", pp. 63-64 in Selected Philosophical Works, vol. II. (Text)
(63)Engels, Anti-Duhring, Chapter I. "General", paragraphs 2 and 3. (Text)
(64)Fashionable Nonsense, p. 183. (Text)
(65)Ibid., p. 191. (Text)
(66)Ibid., p. 208. (Text)
Last changed on January 7, 2002.