Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Reflections on the Sokal Affair

If politics makes strange bedfellows, then philosophy is an inconvenient marriage. 

“Tying capitalism to faith means that capitalism cannot be justified in reason. A conservative who claims that his case rests on faith declares that reason is on the side of his enemies—that one can oppose collectivism only on the grounds of mystical faith. To the extent that anyone accepts this argument, he is forced to reject capitalism—if he is a man who wants to be rational. Therefore, these alleged defenders of capitalism are pushing potential sympathizers to the exact opposite side.”—Ayn Rand. (From “Ayn Rand on Campus” quoted in Objectively Speaking: Ayn Rand Interviewed, Marlene Podritske and Peter Schwartz, editors. Lexington Books, 2009) 
“And I’m worried about trends in the American Left—particularly in academia—that at minimum divert us from the task of formulating a progressive social critique, by leading smart and committed people into trendy but empty intellectual fashions, and that can in fact undermine the prospects for such a critique, by promoting subjectivist and relativist philosophies that in my view are inconsistent with producing a realistic analysis of our society that we and our fellow citizens will find compelling. It seems to me that truth, reason and objectivity are values worth defending no matter what one’s political views; but for those of us on the Left, they are crucial—without them, our critique loses all its force.”—Alan Sokal. (“Truth, Reason, Objectivity, and the Left” in Beyond the Hoax, Oxford University Press, 2008.)  
“I want to emphasize that my plea in favor of truth, reason and objectivity in no way implies that the exact meaning of these concepts is self-evident; certainly I do not purport to have resolved centuries-old problems of epistemology. But it does seem to me that these deep and difficult epistemological problems should be treated with the utmost intellectual rigor--as indeed serious philosophers of science have been doing for years. And it’s this intellectual rigor, as I’ve tried to show and would be glad to show in more detail, that has unfortunately been lacking in some of the trendier segments of the American academy. And it’s even more unfortunate—at least to my mind—that this sloppy thinking has proliferated among academics tho identify with the political Left.”—Alan Sokal. (“Truth, Reason, Objectivity, and the Left” in Beyond the Hoax, Oxford University Press, 2008.)
 “Intellectually, to rest one’s case on faith means to concede that reason is on the side of one’s enemies—that one has no rational arguments to offer. The “conservatives’ ” claim that their case rests on faith means that there are no rational arguments to support the American system, no rational justification for freedom, justice, property, individual rights, that these rest on a mystic revelation and can be accepted only on faith—that in reason and logic, the enemy is right, but that men must hold faith as superior to reason.” —Ayn Rand, “Conservatism: an Obituary” in Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal, New American Library 1966.

In the full course of their writings, both Alan Sokal and Ayn Rand also identified another trend: that those who proclaim the relativity of facts and values do so with absolute conviction. 

Although a reasonable person accepts their fallibility the postmodernists do not. They do not even say that science is valid within its realm, and our material comforts are proof of that. They certainly do not allow that to capitalism, either. Rather, they claim that reality does not exist and even if it did, you could not know it. How do they know that?  Alan Sokal and Ayn Rand both cited many examples of such nonsense. As I noted in previous blogs here, I ran into it in criminology classes at college and university. There, the matter takes on dread proportions. I pointed out that the elevator technician who ensures that we make it safely to the seventh floor does not engage a “narrative.” What standards should a jury look to when determining the fate of a person accused of a crime? No answer was offered. 

One difference between Rand’s and Sokal’s rhetorical style stands out. While she granted her fallibility as a theoretical possibility, he accepts it inherently. It shows in their words. In Atlas Shrugged, it is the bad guys who equivocate: it seems... I think... to me... Sokal is hesitant. In the best sense, perhaps we all should be; but his uncertainty undercuts his case. The same problem denied a strong foundation to Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies. Shadowed by World War II, Popper wanted the freedom to be unsure; and he had to defend that against brutes who proclaimed their absolute conviction. 

But Ayn Rand’s point was specifically that if resisted, if pushed those “muscle mystics” collapse into uncertainty of their own because they do not know reality and reason. They will proclaim and hide within some “higher” reason. Sokal makes the same point, often, as well: the postmodernists retreat from knowledge about reality into “local knowledge.” 

Both Rand and Sokal would agree with the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan for reminding us: “You have a right to your own opinion. You do not have a right to your own facts.”

PREVIOUSLY ON NECESSARY FACTS
The Sokal Affair
Confronting Postmodernism and Conservatism
"New age and post-modernist professors teach future police officers that there is no such thing as right and wrong.  According to Stuart Henry, Bruce A. Arrigo, Christopher Williams, and Mark M. Lanier, taking their cues from Paul Feyerabend and Jacques Lacan, the Enlightenment was a Euro-centric, phallo-centric conquest.  They claim that the senses are invalid, that logic has no validity.  Such assertions are the deepest expression of academic fraud." Misconduct in Science and Research
Four Books about Bad Science
Teaching Ethics to Student Engineers

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