Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Sokal Hoax

Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of ScienceFashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science by Alan Sokal

In 1996 NYU physicist Alan Sokal submitted a fake essay to a postmodern literary journal.  The essay (which was published) was a Trojan Horse that badly embarrassed the journal's editors.  It purported to argue, in an intentionally incoherent way, that science has suffered "paradigm shifts" (in Thomas Kuhn's term) that throw doubt on the entire enterprise of rational, objective thought and on the notion of a reality that's in any way independent of cultural perspective.

As Sokal and Bricmont put it in Fashionable Nonsense, the book they wrote on what is now known as "The Sokal Hoax," "One encounters frequently, in postmodernist writings, the claim that more-or-less recent scientific developments have not only modified our view of the world but have also brought about profound philosophical and epistemological shifts—in short, that the very nature of science has changed.  The examples cited most frequently in support of this thesis are quantum mechanics, Gödel’s theorem, and chaos theory…."  However, these Kuhnian conclusions drawn from quantum mechanics, Gödel’s theorem, chaos theory, and the theory of relativity “are based mostly on confusions.”

Kuhn is a surprise villain here, though Sokal and Bricmont concede that his work, while misleading, is far more serious, credible, and intellectually sincere than that of Jacques Lacan, Jean Baudrillard, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva.  On the other hand, radical left-winger Noam Chomsky is a surprise ally in the fight against radical "epistemic relativism."  Sokal and Bricmont quote from one of Chomsky's 1969 lectures: "George Orwell once remarked that political thought, especially on the left, is a sort of masturbation fantasy in which the world of fact hardly matters. That’s true, unfortunately, and it’s part of the reason that our society lacks a genuine, responsible, serious left-wing movement."

Alan Sokal is himself a self-described leftist and I think he's very good on this point.  He wrote in Lingua Franca in 1996: "Theorizing about the ‘social construction of reality’ won’t help us find an effective treatment for AIDS or devise strategies for preventing global warming.  Nor can we combat false ideas in history, sociology, economics and politics if we reject notions of truth and falsity."  Which is why, as Sokal and Bricmont argue, "The traditional left, in both its Marxist and non-Marxist variants, generally saw itself as the rightful inheritor of the Enlightenment and as the embodiment of science and rationality.”

The pithiest thing Sokal ever said isn't in Fashionable Nonsense, but in his 1996 essay which revealed the hoax: “[A]nyone who believes the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment.  (I live on the twenty-first floor.)”

Contrary to one of its blurbs, this is not by any stretch "a hilarious romp."  It's not entertainment, but it's a very important book that, as philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote in The New Republic, "should have an impact at least on the next generation of students.”

Monday, June 13, 2011

Coffee and Beer Required

Tractatus Logico PhilosophicusTractatus Logico Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein

1.      The world is all that is the case. 
1.1    All that is the case is slightly better with coffee. 
1.2   All that is the case is slightly less so with beer. 
2.     What we cannot speak of without the aid of coffee or beer, we must pass over in silence. 

Wittgenstein composed some of the Tractatus while in the Austrian army and a World War I Italian prison camp--and it reads like the written equivalent of a man banging his head against his prison bars. 

Some people credit this work with the notion that ideas are pictures of the world. My initial thought was that perhaps someone with a greater knowledge of philosophy could explain why this is noteworthy millennia after Plato, centuries after John Locke, and all the very many others who have written on mental processes and mimesis. You have to read Wittgenstein's next book, the much more straightforward Philosophical Investigations, for a comprehensible exposition of his inferences about pictorial thinking, and pre-verbal depths of thought. 

The more frustrating Tractatus is written in the style of a geometric proof, with numbered postulates and corollaries, but it's evident that this structure has been imposed after the fact on a bunch of disorderly notes--of the sort that might be composed, I guess, while being shelled by the French. 

While it's famous for its earth-shattering pronouncements on knowledge, thought, and language, in fact I found it almost entirely consumed with refuting obscure arguments in the work of Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege. (I have no doubt that that work is not obscure to students of the work of Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege, but Wittgenstein certainly does not provide a compelling reason to become one of those.) 

This book had me wondering whether Wittgenstein's mentor, Bertrand Russell, was under the spell of Wittgenstein's domineering self-regard (perhaps, but W's brilliance is also evident in later work), and whether Russell's philosophy itself was also basically incomprehensible (haven't read enough to say). I've been away from math for a long time, but I studied it up through multivariable calculus; why can't I understand Wittgenstein's math-ish sentences? Why doesn't he define any of his symbols? Isn't that a basic element of math technique--to define your terms? Do some people adore Wittgenstein precisely because they can't understand the cryptic runes contained here and mistake them for religion? And is it religion? 

These questions and many more will not be answered within the pages of the enigmatic Tractatus, whose philosophy Wittgenstein later retracted anyway. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Long Day's Journey into Night

Long Day's Journey into NightLong Day's Journey into Night by Eugene O'Neill

Eugene O'Neill is my favorite American playwright.  He is the master portraitist of denial and its correspondence with the indelible pain of past experience.  Occasionally he lapses into didacticism in plays that are otherwise beautiful, poetic specimens of naturalism, but even these lapses have an affectingly brutal honesty and directness about them.  They feel inevitable, like the messy casualties of war.  In his lifetime bout with the truth, to determine whether it will conquer him or he it, by setting it down in words, O'Neill stands up in the end bloody but, more than unbowed, victorious.

Long Day's Journey into Night flies in book form and is brilliant on stage with the right actors.  I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman as older son Jamie, which was a wonder.  Brian Dennehy played the father and Robert Sean Leonard the younger son, Edmund.  Leonard seems to have a roughly average head circumference, but both Dennehy and Hoffman have heads like football helmets.  Edmund is supposed to look like his mother and Jamie like his father, but the head circumference was so different, it introduced a certain phantom storyline into the text: what the hell was up with the head circumferences of the Tyrone family and did it have something to do with their drug and alcohol addiction?

Long Day's Journey into Night may have my vote for best American play, certainly it has the best title I've ever heard.