Transcending postmodernism: How to March for Science without naively supporting objective truths?

When March for Science gathered hundreds of thousands of people in more than 600 cities across the world to march for “truth” and against “post-truth politics”, was it just a tribal gathering serving mainly to promote the marchers’ shared identity? Some like Dallas Cowboys, others like science, and both tribes like to flash their identities publicly.

According to consultant David Ropeik the “arrogant, smug, condescending” march was essentially a “giant intellectual middle finger at the people who, because of their values and experiences and personalities and tribal identities, hold views about climate change or vaccine safety or GMOs or evolution that conflict with what the evidence clearly says.” In banners yelling that ’science is real’, ’protesting for reality’, and ’truth should shape politics’ he saw a nostalgia for a ”naïve objectivist view of the world” that has long since been abandoned by any serious thinker.

True that. Ever since Immanuel Kant’s Copernican Revolution in Western philosophy, it has been clear that we can never access reality as such. Our perception is always limited and biased, shaped by our culture, upbringing, idiosyncratic experiences as well as various biological mechanisms. As Ropeik notes, the brain is not “a machine dedicated to dispassionate thinking” but ”principally a survival machine, and as social animals we survive best when our views match those in the tribe(s) with which we most closely identify.”

Given the essential epistemological shortcomings inbuilt in the human condition, there simply isn’t any fixed point upon which all truths could be built. Human life is an ongoing stream of experiencing from which we seem to be able to identify certain regularities. But elevating any such found regularity into “an objective truth” is, in the best case, just naïve, and in the worst case is used to justify violence against other tribes. Millions of people throughout the history have been massacred by perpetrators believing that the truth is on their side. Science has been used to justify eugenics, racial discrimination, austerity and trickle-down economics, as well as labeling of homosexuality as a disease.

This is what postmodernism got right. In unveiling how power structures permeate our society and discourses, in revealing hidden assumptions in our language, and in deconstructing the particularities behind the grand narratives and self-evident truths of modernity, thinkers such as Lyotard, Foucault and Derrida (although latter two might not like the label ‘postmodernist’) have done a significant service to the society. Ever since Kant and his Copernican Turn, the brightest minds in philosophy — think Hegel, Russell, Wittgenstein — have tried their best to avoid the inconvenient conclusion that there is nothing objective. Their failure stands testimony for the truth of there being no essential truths. In a way, postmodernists, Derrida, Foucault and their likes just took Kant’s thinking to the logical conclusion he was unwilling to accept.

So: If epistemological relativism means that there are no objective truths or “true facts” and if moral relativism means that there are no objective moral values or principles, then these relativisms are “truths” in as strong sense as is possible in this disillusioned and postmodern time.

But since I first encountered postmodernistic thinkers in my undergraduate years, one question has been burning in my mind: What then? What then when we have acknowledged the essential particularity and culturally inherited nature of our believes and values? What then when we have acknowledged that no tribe can claim access to any objective truths? What then when we have acknowledged the important role that power structures, language, identities, cognitive biases and othe factors play in our thinking and public discourses?

The necessity of decision-making and choosing is impossible to avoid. Even in the postmodern era, we need to make practical decisions both in our everyday life and in our groups, organizations, and societies. How are we to make these decisions? In the political sphere, when we have listened to all possible parties, how are we to evaluate the various arguments given by these parties? How to decide which arguments are good and which bad? How to choose whose arguments to take seriously and whose arguments to ignore? When push comes to shove, we need to make a choice. And in order to do that, we need both some values and some epistemological standards.

Stating that every argument is as good as another is essentially giving up. If naïve modernism is about a belief in objective truths and forgetting all the factors making such objectivism impossible, then naïve postmodernism is about a belief in subjective truths and completely forgetting the necessity of making practical decisions both individually and in groups and societies. And postmodernism can be as harmful as modernism. By refuting reason and universal values, postmodernism can come to privilege “inconsistency, irrationalism, zealous certainty and tribal authoritarianism,” as Helen Pluckrose recently acknowledged. One symptom of such return to tribalism and identity politics are the riots on US campuses against speakers who challenge campus orthodoxy. Jonathan Haidt warns us that “when tribal sentiments are activated within an academic community, some members start to believe that their noble collective ends justify almost any means, including the demonization of inconvenient research and researchers, false accusations, character assassination, and sometimes even violence.”

The impotence of seeing everything as yet another perspective without any tools to evaluate or compare them is the elephant in the room as regards postmodernism. When confronted about it, proponents of postmodernism usually get very defensive and start muddying the waters. A typical tactic — to the point of being a cliché — is to remind the inquirer about how ‘complex’ and ‘different’ the various postmodernist thinkers are, and drop the names of some ten books that the inquirer should read. Postmodernists are good at taking the conversation backwards, but they are terrible at taking a conversation forwards, towards real-life solutions. The sharpness of their ability to critique and deconstruct hides an inability to construct and offer practical advice.

For a long time, I was on a very thin ice with my what then –question. Slowly, and mainly through the writings of John Dewey and other pragmatists, an answer started to emerge. Dewey, as other pragmatists, takes fallibilism as the starting point. As Peirce, one of the founding fathers of pragmatism defines it, “we cannot in any way reach perfect certitude nor exactitude. We never can be absolutely sure of anything.” Instead our knowledge “swims, as it were, in a continuum of uncertainty and of indeterminacy.” However, unlike postmodernists, pragmatisms don’t wallow in this post-objectivism. Instead, they acknowledge the active nature of the human condition. As human beings we can never escape our embeddedness within the world of experiencing into which we are thrown as actors. “Action … is the way in which human beings exist in the world,” as Hans Joas puts it.

Given the active nature of human living, the ultimate function of our beliefs and convictions is not to neutrally depict the world, but to offer us guidance in our living. Our beliefs are maps we build in order to fruitfully navigate the constantly unfolding experientally encountered world we seem to share with others. Increased knowledge is not about getting the correct “representation of reality in cognition” but is an expression of an “increase of the power to act in relation to an environment”, to quote Joas again. Human history has been a journey towards designing both better maps to navigate the environment and towards inventing better ways to design such maps. In the latter front, scientific methods are humankinds foremost achievement. All scientific methods have their shortcomings, and all scientific ‘knowledge’ has reservations, yet science is still our best answer to overcome the particularities, biases, and self-servingness of individual viewpoints.

This gives us a standard to use when evaluating the arguments of various people and tribes. Following the guidance of some arguments simply has a higher probability of advancing the human goods than following some other arguments. That’s why we should follow the former, while giving less weight to arguments that have a high probability of having negative effects for the human goods.

There is progress in bridge-building: Modern bridges simply are able to span distances impossible for medieval bridges. In the same sense there is progress in human societies: Some societal arrangements are better able to advance the human goods of society members.

This of course brings us to the next question: What are the human goods? A pragmatist avoids taking this for granted either. Instead, in the same sense as constant inquiry can lead us to have a more reliable understanding of the world around us, the same inquiry can lead us to have a more reliable understanding of the human goods. In other words, human goods are something that can only be identified through inquiry. And for such inquiry we need to study both human psychology as well as our biological nature, not forgetting to overcome the biases inherent in conducting this inquiry only within a certain culture. Thus anthropological records, studying the scriptures of various cultures and a more general dialogue between cultures are all essential for building an understanding of the human goods. Accordingly, we can have more or less reliable accounts of the human goods and the values we should strive for as individuals and as societies. And although this knowledge is always fallible and incomplete as well, the necessity of making practical decisions forces us to rely on the best currently available account of the human goods in making such decisions.

So this is the mission of science then: To build more reliable maps of the world to better guide us towards human goods, while at the same time aiming to find more reliable understanding of what these human goods are in the first place.

So let’s return to my ‘what then’ question: How are we to make personal and political decisions in the postmodern ‘post-truth’ era? The answer is not to ‘go back’ to modernity and naïve believe in the power of science or ‘rationality’ to uncover objective truths. But the answer is not either a postmodernist return to tribal identities where every argument and perspective is as good as another. Instead, while acknowledging the inherent shortcomings of various forms of inquiry, we should nevertheless acknowledge the ability of some forms of inquiries to give us more reliable tools that aid us in navigating towards having more of the human goods realized in our lives. And accordingly, in political decision-making, we should privilege the arguments that are the fruits of such inquiries.

So next time a ‘march for science’ is organized, I don’t want to march for ‘truth’ but for something like this:

“In support of using best available evidence, which is usually attained through scientific methods, while recognizing the shortcomings of any warranty-building method and being open to revise one’s convictions in the light of new evidence, all in the service of advancing human goods, while also constantly revising our understanding of such goods.”

Not easy to fit that into a banner, though.

For more on pragmatism and how it transcends postmodernism, here a few more academic articles on the topic:

Martela, F. (2015). Pragmatism as an attitude. In U. Zackariasson (Ed.), Nordic Studies in Pragmatism 3: Action, Belief and Inquiry – Pragmatist Perspectives on Science, Society and Religion (pp. 187–207). Helsinki: Nordic Pragmatism Network.

Martela, F. (2015). Fallible inquiry with ethical ends-in-view: A pragmatist philosophy of science for organizational research. Organization Studies, 36(4), 537–563.

Martela, F. (2017). Moral Philosophers as Ethical Engineers: Limits of Moral Philosophy and a Pragmatist Alternative. Metaphilosophy, 48(1–2), 58–78.

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