Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Postmodernism and epistemic nihilism

Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom attribute the flaws of postmodernism to juvenile contrarianism. One of the key concepts that I read from this article is the notion of epistemology relative to ethics: If one supports an ethical principle, then an epistemology is "valid" if it supports that ethical principle.
Louise Lamphere, for example, a past president of the American Anthropological Association, claims that there is an “urgent need” for an “engaged anthropology,” within which moral commitment trumps impersonal scientific concern, and where the communities that anthropologists work with are treated as equal partners in the research process.
I submit that this tendency should not be labeled as just "relativism", but rather as epistemological nihilism: If you're committed a priori to believing some proposition, ethical or otherwise, adding post hoc epistemic support for the proposition itself is pointless.

This anti-epistemology is subtly but fundamentally different from the scientific method. Although the scientific method attempts to construct logical accounts for perceptual evidence, the task is not to justify the perceptual evidence, it is to justify the logical account. Furthermore, the foundation of the scientific method, perceptual evidence, is just that evidence which is in fact accepted by everyone. The postmodernist anti-epistemology acts in the opposite way: A post hoc pseudo-epistemology exists only to justify the ethical beliefs in question, "proving" that we "know" these beliefs are "true"—or at least "true for us".

Actually, these sorts of postmodernists don't even bother with an actual epistemic method at all; they merely denounce any method that doesn't result in justifying whatever ethical belief is at issue as "fascist": As Benson and Stangroom quote Holmes, et al.
[T]he objective of this paper is to demonstrate that the evidence-based movement in the health sciences is outrageously exclusionary and dangerously normative with regards to scientific knowledge. As such, we assert that the evidence-based movement in health sciences constitutes a good example of microfascism at play in the contemporary scientific arena.
justified by Pearson by the
notion that no one view, theory or understanding should be privileged over another (or that no discourse should be silenced).
Calling some mode of discourse "microfascism" seems clearly—at least in postmodern terms—a hypocritical attempt to silence that discourse.

The characterization of evidence-basis as "microfascist" seems especially telling. If it is indeed the case that the sine qua non of any epistemic system is to generate principled agreement, then any epistemic system will be "fascist": The whole point of principled agreement is that by accepting the principles, one is inexorably "forced" to agree (in the same sense that one is inexorably forced to accelerate towards the Earth at ~10 m/s²). To denounce an epistemic system because it is principled, and therefore "fascist", is to deny epistemology and endorse epistemic nihilism.

It's interesting to compare and contrast the "leftist" postmodernism that Benson and Stangroom critique with the religious approach to epistemology. From Andrew Sullivan's debate with Sam Harris: He asserts that Harris has "allowed for the validity of religious faith as a form of legitimate truth-seeking in a different mode," as if that were a good thing. Couple this with Sullivan's deprecation of religious fundamentalism as unable to "to integrate doubt into faith" and you have exactly the same sort of "leftist" postmodernism from a Christian conservative: Religious faith is a different form of "truth-seeking" which results in truths that are different for everyone.

At least people such as Kenneth are a little more politically sound: He at least tries to establish some sort of method which substantiates a universal ethical stance, instead of embracing Sullivan's ethical relativism.

The really stupid part of the "leftist" postmodernism is that it's utterly unnecessary. Evidence-based science has no primary ethical content at all. Science tells us only what is, not which is the "better" of realistic alternatives. At best, science gives us only secondary ethical content: How best (or better) achieve a preferred result. Even if one wishes, as Benson and Stangroom attribute to Marglin, to "problemati[ze] the binary opposition that Western medicine invokes—not unreasonably, one might think—between disease and health, death and life," and contrast it "unfavourably with the traditional Indian worship of Sitala, the goddess of smallpox," one does not need to discuss epistemology—at least not scientific epistemology—at all. Science merely tells us that smallpox is caused by a particular bacillus virus; science does not at all tell us whether smallpox is good or bad.

Furthermore, as Benson and Stangroom point out, Marglin's goal is not to discuss the primary ethical value of smallpox itself, but rather to undermine the scientific description of smallpox as caused by a bacillus virus, "to challenge science’s claim to be a superior form of knowledge which renders obsolete more traditional systems of thought." It's just as "true", Marglin would seem to assert, that smallpox is some sort of divine punishment as it is that smallpox is the result of infection by a mindless bacillus virus.

I'm a postmodernist myself: I strongly disagree with the fundamental program of Modernism that primary ethics—what is "intrinsically" good and bad—is a matter of objective truth: Nothing is intrinsically good or bad; good and bad are fundamentally subjective evaluations. Infection by smallpox is bad because it causes people to suffer; infection by E-coli bacteria in our intestines is good because it causes people to feel good. Objectively, both are infestations of foreign organisms, with little to differentiate the two.

But I think a commitment to scientific truth—always descriptive, never primarily normative—is critical to the fundamental postmodernist program, because, whatever your primary ethical beliefs, science will always tell you how to achieve them.

Furthermore, to the extent that one values social cooperation, this goal is not achieved by blanket tolerance and epistemic nihilism. Blanket tolerance must tolerate ethically intolerance: If all value systems are equally true, then the ethically (and not just descriptively) totalitarian and "fascist" value systems of Islam and extremist Christianity are equally true, and their intolerance must be tolerated. To actually cooperate we must have two things: Agreement about the arena—objective reality—in which we must cooperate, and some basis for coming to ethical compromise, which entails a degree of tolerance and a degree of intolerance.

The only alternative is pure separatism: If we can't agree on how reality is, if we cannot construct ethical compromises, we have no choice but to live separately. But separatism is impossible: We cannot construct ideological or physical walls strong enough to resist human will. Even ignoring the ethical dimensions of genocide, as has been proven time and again, it is impossible in practice to physically exterminate even a tiny subset of those who disagree. We must learn to cooperate, and this is not a normative "must", but a scientific "must": If the human species survives at all, those who do learn to cooperate will eventually dominate those who do not or cannot cooperate.


  1. Great post. For me it's about establishing frames of reference. If I preface any epistemic statement with "from my point of view as a human being," then aside from that one qualifier, I can avoid relativism/postmodernism. From that standpoint, smallpox bacteria are objectively bad, as you said.

    I propose that a great deal (if not everything) about human nature and human values can be established objectively. Which makes me (in theory at least) able to avoid labeling myself a post-modernist.

  2. "Objective" is equivocal in this context.

    I think everything about human nature and values can be established scientifically, but human nature and human values are intrinsically subjective in the sense of being nothing but the properties of minds, instead of—as with our knowledge of physics—properties of minds supervening on properties of non-minded objects.

  3. I think "objective" here, when it comes to ethical and meta-ethical statements, becomes a bit of a semantic plaything, complicating accurate communication.

  4. human nature and human values are intrinsically subjective in the sense of being nothing but the properties of minds

    If we can understand (eventually) exactly how human minds work, then we can separate their workings (subjective perceptions) from the information content they are storing (objective facts). Then also, statements about human nature can be objectified.

    That's my hope, anyway. Values may end up being the only remaining area of dispute. But even then, if we could establish a set of values we could *prove* produced the best outcomes, it would be hard to argue that was subjective either.

    Unless you are one of those people who would quibble over the definition of the word "best" (it's happened to me before). My definition of "best" for the sake of the argument is maximizing human freedom, pleasure and prosperity, and minimizing human suffering.

  5. BlackSun:

    If we can understand (eventually) exactly how human minds work, then we can separate their workings (subjective perceptions) from the information content they are storing (objective facts).

    I don't think such a task is possible. At best we can determine precisely on what physical features our internal subjective experience supervenes.

    Then also, statements about human nature can be objectified.

    In the sense that I'm using "objective", there would be some particular physical facts on which properties of minds supervene, and other physical facts on which properties of minds do not supervene—the distinction is still strict, just expressed in a different manner.

    Rather than equivocating "objective" (and as has been pointed out earlier, my own language is sometimes unfortunately imprecise), I prefer to use words such as "physical" or "real" when I'm discussing propositions which span the minded/non-minded distinction.

    [I]f we could establish a set of values we could *prove* produced the best outcomes, it would be hard to argue that was subjective either.

    Even if we recast this statement without equivocating objective with provable, there are two important ambiguities in this assertion. First, values are what distinguish the "best" outcomes, i.e. the best outcome is the outcome that has the highest value. You are saying we might establish a set of values which we could prove produce the most value. Seems circular to me.

    Given a set of values (which apply not only to outcomes (ends) but also to means) we might come up with the best strategy to maximally fulfill those values, but it's provable that given a nontrivial set of values, even a game-theoretic maximization is logically impossible. I'll look up the reference later.

    It is logically possible that we might construct some normative propositions that depend entirely on universals about minds. I think this possibility is unlikely in practice, and those normative propositions would likely be—if not completely trivial—not sufficiently robust for a complete ethical system.

    Because the actual mental states (and the physical facts on which those states supervene) instantiated in actual reality are only a minuscule subset of the total possible states (even of the total coherent evolve-able states), any those actual states will dominate the character of ethical system in actual practice.

    My definition of "best" for the sake of the argument is maximizing human freedom, pleasure and prosperity, and minimizing human suffering.

    Mine too. But these criteria represent not universals, but particular states of what you and I happen to subjectively value, most especially the value of empathy (valuing particular subjective states of other minds) and autonomy. It's arguable that these values are result not of universals about minds but of the accidentals of human evolution.

    Until we get much more empirical data on how other intelligent species evolve (or at least empirical data showing that the existence of another intelligent species is impossible or highly improbable) it would seem very difficult (i.e. impossible) to distinguish between values that depend on universals, and values which are accidental.

    But drawing this distinction is unnecessary: It's quite sufficient to construct our own ethical systems not on scientific universals, but simply on the actual prevalence of particular values, regardless of their provenance.

  6. Just to split hairs, smallpox is caused by a virus, not by a bacillus (rod-shaped bacterium). A bacterium is a cellular organism; a virus is not.

    But aside from that, the principle is correct. And one can always believe that some deity sends smallpox viruses to punish people for their sins, even though such a deity seems limited to working with existing viruses and can be thwarted by their absence.

    I'm a bit reminded of the objection to lightning rods that they thwart some of God's efforts to punish us for our sins.

  7. Just to split hairs, smallpox is caused by a virus, not by a bacillus (rod-shaped bacterium).

    Doh! I was asleep that day in medical school.


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