I must say I had been flirting with postmodern philosophy in recent years –with the idea that objective truth is unattainable, that generalizations are impossible, and that all I have is my own perception of reality, which need not, and cannot, match yours. But although it’s a compelling stance in theory (and a cool one, especially when compared to geeky positivist squareness!), I’ve never figured out how to make it work in practice: in its extreme form, it implies that scientific research is worthless, since all its generalizations are fundamentally and inescapably flawed; the physical arguments postmodernists use -such as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle– are, deliberately or not, misunderstood by them; and the scientific results and benefits they show for their efforts are overwhelmingly weak.
So now, after a long inner debate, I’m kissing academic postmodernism goodbye. My disappointment started when I found out about the Sokal Affair (you really need to read that link if you haven’t heard of it), and deepened when I realized postmodernism gives an escape clause to creationists, global warming skeptics, the Bush administration, and yes, Stephen Colbert, to disregard facts and the reality-based community in favour of their own wishful thinking. But the nail in the coffin came recently from two very short, but very powerful and refreshing books: Harry Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit” and “On Truth“, both of them accessible philosophical essays. In the first, Frankfurt explains how bullshitters, so prevalent among marketers and politicians, are not really liars -they simply don’t care about whether their statements are true or false, only about what they make us believe. In the second book, he explains why this disregard for truth is such a big problem –because without a concern for truth there is no progress. “On Truth”, in particular, is very critical of postmodernism, and although the criticism is distilled and simplified, it was the little nudge I needed to make up my mind on the matter.
I’ll keep recognizing that truth is always more nuanced than it appears, and that achieving objectivity and rationality is tremendously hard. I’ll keep reading Foucault, Derrida, and the others, since there’s much to learn from them. I’ll keep making the point that, for any scientific finding, context is essential. But I can’t fool myself –there is a reality and I have the duty and the capability to strive to understand it, however clumsily, and to be objective about it.