Friday, July 01, 2011

Richard Rorty's Response to the Sokal Hoax.


While doing some research on one of my favorite topics, science and social construvism, I came across an article written some time ago, by Richard Rorty. I had just been arguing against Rorty on my message boards. He was one of my big nemesis in graduate work. He was the epitome of why I began to study postmodernism, when I saw it as the big threat to Christian gospel. This article I like. I came to agree with the constructivist, although in the more reasonable form of that view, epitomized by Thomas Kuhn. I have defended the view of scinece as social construct on CARM for years, and been called names and so forth for doing that.

This a good article, I enjoyed, by Rorty in Atlantic monthly in 1999, responding to the "Sokal Hoax." For those who don't know what that is, Alan Sokal a physicists put out an article baiting the science-is-a-social-construct crowd by saying extremely ridiculous statements that seemed to agree with them, such as "science no longer supports the idea of an world outside the mind." When a bunch of the constructivist crowd hailed these statements Skoal came back and said "you are nuts, can't you tell I'm pulling your leg." There is an article online where Sokal discusses the hoax, what he thinks he proved and didn't prove.

This is Rorty's counter attack. Rorty is a constructivist (as If you you can't tell by his statement "there's no truth out there."

Read the whole article it's pretty good. It's called "Phony Science Wars."

Atlantic Monthly digital edition
Nov 1999

The article uses Ian Hacking as the defender of a rational view of constructivism. Hacking is one of my favorites. I discovered him way back in my early doctoral work. He was doing history of scinece at that point.

Ian Hacking

Except from article:
IAN Hacking -- the most intellectually curious and imaginative philosopher of science now writing -- is a member of the third group. In this spirited and eminently readable book he suggests that the combatants climb down from the level of abstraction on which they debate such topics as the nature of truth, the nature of science, and the nature of rationality, and focus instead on three questions: Are the best scientific theories of our day the inevitable results of serious inquiry, or might science have taken a different turn and still had equal success in building bombs, say, or curing diseases? Do these theories tell us about the intrinsic structure of reality, or are they simply the best tools available for predicting and controlling nature? Are the longest-lasting and most frequently relied upon theories stable because they match a stable reality, or because scientists get together to keep them stable, as politicians get together to keep existing political arrangements intact? Philosophers like Latour and Kuhn, wary of the idea that reality has an intrinsic nature that scientific inquiry is destined to reveal, are inclined to say that science might have done as good a job if it had never come up with either quarks or genes. As they see it, scientific progress is like biological evolution: no particular life-form is destined to emerge, and lots of different ones might have turned out to be equally good at survival. In this view, scientific theories are tools that do a job. They do it well, but some other tools might perhaps have done the same job equally well.
The stalemate that Hacking brilliantly describes but does not try to break is between many scientists' intuition of the inevitability of quarks and many philosophers' suspicion that the claim of inevitability makes sense only if the idea of the intrinsic structure of reality makes sense. This teeter-totter between conflicting intuitions is, Hacking rightly says, a genuine intellectual problem. Which answer one gives to his third question -- about the source of the stability of the most reliable bits of science -- is likely to be a matter of which side of the seesaw has most recently descended.

These alternating intuitions have been in play ever since Protagoras said "Man is the measure of all things" and Plato rejoined that the measure must instead be something nonhuman, unchanging, and capitalized -- something like The Good, or The Will of God, or The Intrinsic Nature of Physical Reality. Scientists who, like Steven Weinberg, have no doubt that reality has an eternal, unchanging, intrinsic structure which natural science will eventually discover are the heirs of Plato. Philosophers like Kuhn, Latour, and Hacking think that Protagoras had a point, and that the argument is not yet over.

The most vocal and inflamed participants in the so-called science wars are treating the latest version of this fine old philosophical controversy as a big deal. In the very long run, perhaps, it will prove to be one. Maybe someday the idea of human beings answering to an independent authority called How Things Are in Themselves will be obsolete. In a thoroughly de-Platonized, fully Protagorean culture the only answerability human beings would recognize would be to one another. It would never occur to them that "the objective" could mean more than "the agreed-upon upshot of argument." In such a culture we would have as little use for the idea of the intrinsic structure of physical reality as for that of the will of God. We would view both as unfortunate and obsolete social constructions.

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