by Brian Tomasik
First written: 22 Aug. 2014; last update: 5 Dec. 2016

Summary

Postmodernism, poststructuralism, social constructionism, nihilism, existentialism, feminism, and related intellectual movements hold a prominent place in liberal academia and even in contemporary culture more broadly. While some scientists deride these ideas as ignorant and useless, I think postmodernism and its kin have important artistic and philosophical value, as long as they're consumed in moderation rather than to the exclusion of making an impact in the real world.

Introduction

Postmodernism. The word means different things to different people.

  • Many modern, liberal academics appreciate postmodernism's emphasis on diversity, tolerance, and non-absolutism.
  • Many scientists laugh at postmodernism's wishy-washy ideas, feel annoyance at its bombastic prose, or resent its distortions of science.
  • Christian evangelicals love to cite postmodernism as a poster child for society's declining commitment to traditional ideas and values. Evangelist Ravi Zacharias has characterized postmodernism as the view that there is "No truth, no meaning, no certainty." It's against this backdrop of our contemporary culture that traditional Christianity must contend.
  • Some postmodernists themselves may deflect attempts to pigeonhole their ideas. Since postmodernism propounds that meanings are person-relative and indeterminate, trying to express postmodernism with a label may be a wrong-headed exercise.

This piece sketches some of my general thoughts on postmodernism and related intellectual movements that pervade liberal academia.

Postmodernism and poststructuralism

Postmodernism is a broad term with many associations across many intellectual disciplines, but one of its core ideas is the relativity of meaning and truth from person to person. This is an important point to consider during ethical thinking, because it reminds us that the way things seem to us is just one of many ways they can seem. It also encourages us to keep an open mind as to whether the universe is fundamentally different from how we assume it is.

Some of the ethical ideas I discuss on this website reflect an element of postmodernism: that ethics is ultimately up to us to decide, that how we define "consciousness" is a matter of interpretation, and that many things we take for granted are fuzzier and more observer-relative than we realize.

We can see these same ideas within the sciences.

  • Anthropology and sociology remind us of cultural differences in perspective.
  • Neuroscience affirms poststructuralism's insistence that the meaning of a text depends on the reader. After all, each reader has a different set of neural connections, which produce different responses when the words are processed by the brain.
  • Robotics and statistics likewise validate poststructuralism's claim that the same text (data) can have many possible interpretations (models) consistent with it. And just as Jacques Derrida says that "Everything is a text", so Bayesians recognize that "Everything is data".

Daniel Dennett's accounts of consciousness and the self parallel some ideas in deconstructionism (pp. 410-11 of Consciousness Explained), though Dennett has "shunned the associations with deconstructionism that many have urged on me" because "For pomposity, deliberate obscurity, and just plain silliness, I know of nothing to compare with the deconstructionists." Dennett is is also critical of postmodernism's attacks on science.

The postmodern style, like continental philosophy in general, relies on expressive verbiage rather than clear argument to make its points. This "associative" rather than "linear" way of thinking is not inherently "inferior" -- just different. Both types of thinking are helpful in human brains, and associative thinking aids creativity and breaking out of old thought-paradigms. In my opinion, postmodernism is like poetry or art -- it's meant to create an impact on the reader, rather than necessarily to persuade the reader. Paul de Man warns against the effort to quickly understand an author based on concrete examples:

From the experience of reading abstract philosophical texts, we all know the relief one feels when the argument is interrupted by what we call a "concrete" example. Yet at that very moment, when we think at last that we understand, we are further from comprehension than ever [...]. [The Rhetoric of Romanticism, p. 276; I found the quote from "Animating Poststructuralism"]

In Man of the House, a student asks why Shakespeare didn't write Romeo and Juliet in more understandable English. Tommy Lee Jones replies: "He could have. But nobody would be talking about it 410 years later." Decoding word puzzles is part of the joy of Shakespeare, as well as of art in general. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran's principle of "Perceptual Problem Solving" suggests why:

Tied to the detection of contrast and grouping is the concept that discovery of an object after a struggle is more pleasing than one which is instantaneously obvious. The mechanism ensures that the struggle is reinforcing so that the viewer continues to look until the discovery.

So it is with postmodernist writings: Their opacity and mysteriousness serve as part of the tone they aim to convey and the feelings they aim to imbue in readers. Postmodernism is as much about experience as about argument.

Of course, there's value in explaining postmodernism in more clear words. And part of postmodernism's style is historical accident. Many academic fields develop their own jargon, and postmodernism is no exception. Scholars also feel the need to make their writings obscure in order to feign sophistication. John Searle reports being told by Michel Foucault: "In France, you gotta have ten percent incomprehensible, otherwise people won’t think it’s deep -- they won’t think you’re a profound thinker."

Postmodernism is sort of a hybrid between philosophy and poetry. Thus, we can see how its condemnations by scientists are misplaced, because these criticisms are "like accusing the Italian soccer team of never having won a rugby tournament." This quote from Massimo Pigliucci originally defended philosophy in general rather than postmodernism specifically, but the point is the same.

Like other forms of art, postmodernism is best consumed with moderation. Its philosophy has importance for challenging one's world views and opening oneself to alternate perspectives. But this ultimately only matters insofar as it improves the quality of our altruistic efforts. Noam Chomsky is critical of postmodernism because he feels that it distracts intellectuals from doing on-the-ground work to foster social justice. Reducing suffering remains a priority no matter how many trippy postmodern articles we read, and it's essential that postmodernism's virtue of open-mindedness doesn't give way to apathy.

Social constructionism

Social constructionism emphasizes the importance of social and cultural concepts and values on one's development, world view, and goals. Like with postmodernism, the basic idea is mostly beyond reproach, although the thesis may be taken in more radical directions by particular thinkers.

Like with postmodernism, social constructionism has implications for ethics because it challenges us to doubt how strongly we should asseverate the particular ideas that we feel are clearly true. After all, if we had grown up differently, we might have zealously defended a contrary set of moral axioms.

That said, social constructionism has its limits. Humans show many cultural universals, and we have many other properties in common with all animals. Biology is a real constraint on us in the same way as culture is, and not everything is socially constructed. Many of our modes of thinking may be ontogenetically constructed. The nature versus nurture debate illustrates how we are both socially and biologically shaped.

Feminism

Like with social constructionism, it's hard to disagree with the basic tenets of feminism. It's important for alternate perspectives to voice their views, especially historically under-privileged groups -- not just women but ethnic minorities, immigrants, gays, non-Westerners, and even animals. The advent of "X studies" for X in {women's, black, Native American, ...} illustrates efforts to validate alternate understandings of life and society and to challenge prevailing narratives based on existing power structures.

Along with these movements often comes political correctness, which has both upsides and downsides. The main benefit of political correctness is that it challenges ideas and slurs that hold under-privileged groups back or make them feel less empowered than white males. A downside is that it can create hostility toward open scientific inquiry and well intentioned philosophical discussion. One has to watch what one writes for fear of offending others and then being castigated publicly. See "Postscript: Political correctness" for more discussion.

Evolutionary psychology predicts clear gender differences in the minds of men and women, in addition to obvious differences in bodies. Some of these differences may explain gender disputes. Sometimes when men seem insensitive, it's because they don't intuitively understand an issue from a woman's perspective, not because they're trying to be jerks. Louann Brizendine argues this point in a pop-psych article: "Love, sex and the male brain". On the other hand, this doesn't get men off the hook from learning how to act more sensitively.

I suspect that many anti-feminist sentiments stem from the inability of male brains to simulate female emotions. I don't care about being objectified, and I doubt it would feel that bad if I were raped. But evolutionary psychology predicts that women (on average, not in all circumstances) should be much more averse to these things, perhaps because women benefit evolutionarily if they have a deeper connection with a male partner than just through sex because this makes it more likely they get parenting assistance, and because wasting nine months plus years of parenting on a child with suboptimal genes and an absent father due to rape is a huge fitness cost. If a woman tells us that "X makes me feel bad", we should believe her, even if we can't mentally simulate why that would be. In a similar way, humans can't mentally simulate why dung is so appetizing to a dung beetle. Brains are wired differently, and feelings aren't "silly" just because we don't experience them personally.

Some have argued that claims of hard-wired brain differences between men and women may be overblown. It's tricky to separate biology from culture. In any case, even if differences are biological, biology needn't be destiny. Sometimes liberals are afraid of scientific studies asserting biological gender differences, but why should this be troubling? So what if it turned out that women are on average better at language and theater than men due to biological factors? If anything, this could be an argument for greater efforts to help the under-represented gender.a That said, there is a legitimate concern that many people will appeal to nature and see such studies as justification for discrimination. Hence, it's a tough question whether we should bring up biological gender differences. For the most part, I think talk about possible biological gender differences is overblown anyway, because it's a fun, salacious topic, whereas in practice, people vary more on many other, mundane dimensions than gender.

Nihilism and existentialism

When we see that moral realism is confused, we're ostensibly left with a nihilistic outlook. This may lead to existential despair and absurdism. But eventually, out of the rubble, we find something closer to existentialism -- the idea that we decide for ourselves what we value and how we want to make our own meaning in life.

I think these ideas are not just intellectual abstraction but reflect some real emotions with which people struggle. One of my friends called nihilism a "universal acid" that can leave one feeling hopeless and depressed. Ultimately, though, I think nihilist despair is mistaken. After all, isn't a self-created morality the best kind anyway? Why would it be better to be handed a set of commands from somewhere else? What else were you expecting morality to be, over and above what it is?

We certainly feel differently about arbitrary human-created rules compared against "magical" moral principles, and presumably this feeling accounts for much reluctance to dismiss moral realism. Of course, omniscient neuroscientists could probably rewire our brains to evoke the same magical feeling at non-realist morality, and ordinary life experience may partially do the same, so it's not as though the seeming specialness of moral realism is well founded. Still, despite being a moral anti-realist for as long as I can remember, I continue to regard moral values as more plain and less shiny than if I thought they were somehow special (whatever that means).

I often watch myself and other people operating as machines that respond to their environments and engage various response modules at various times. This helps me step outside the "Matrix" that our brains normally create, in which we take our high-level human concepts at face value as somehow being more ontologically basic than they are. A mechanistic perspective is also humbling, because I see how both my brain's processes and, say, the air molecules around me are fundamentally alike in responding to situations in specific ways at specific moments.

The mechanistic view makes morality and life feel somewhat meaningless, but then again, the idea of "meaningless" is itself a human construct and hence is also somewhat "meaningless". A nihilist who declares life to be meaningless is only going half way and not applying nihilism to itself. Ultimately, we just do various things. Stuff happens. Looking for metaphysically special "meaning" (whatever that could be) is asking the wrong question.

In my case, the central focal point of my life is recognizing that torture-level suffering seems awful and needs to be prevented. All other intellectual musings are basically trivial in the face of someone's agony. Starting from that premise, I can then proceed to figure out what that means for my morality and my life.

Nihilism doesn't take away the horror of suffering, and I can feel how preventing suffering is clearly the most important goal I can pursue relative to my own values -- regardless of what moral realism would have said. Eliezer Yudkowsky makes a similar point. Even if there were no "Morality" with a capital "M", wouldn't you still care about others?

Why care about ethics?

If I don't believe in moral truth, why do I try to act ethically? The answer is similar to the answer to the following questions: Why does a mother try to comfort a crying baby? Why do you feed your pet when it's hungry? Why do you get teary-eyed at the sad part of a movie? Because you care about others and want to alleviate their suffering. Even if the moral truth said that it was morally right to hurt others (and some people's interpretations of moral truth do say this), I would respond: "Screw moral truth. I want to actually help sentient beings instead."

This study says:

The moral/conventional distinction is the distinction between moral and conventional transgressions found in the judgements of children and adults. Within the literature on this distinction [...], moral transgressions have been defined by their consequences for the rights and welfare of others, and social conventional transgressions have been defined as violations of the behavioural uniformities that structure social interactions within social systems. [...]

Blair (1993) suggested that when the individual is asked why a moral transgression is bad, he should be able to do some sort of causal analysis which will determine that the distress to the other is the object which activated the withdrawal response; i.e., it is the object that is bad. Blair suggested that without [the violence inhibition mechanism] VIM the individual will judge acts as bad only because he has been told that they are bad (by parents/peers). Without VIM, if the subject is asked about why the act is bad, he will make reference to what he has been told. [...]

The present study examined the form of the moral/conventional distinction made by psychopaths and non-psychopaths and the categories used by these subjects when they justify their judgements. This study revealed: first, and in line with predictions, that while the non-psychopaths made the moral/conventional distinction, the psychopaths did not; secondly, and in contrast with predictions, that psychopaths treated conventional transgressions like moral transgressions rather than treating moral transgressions like conventional transgressions; and thirdly, and in line with predictions, that psychopaths were much less likely to justify their items with reference to victim's welfare.

To oversimplify: Psychopaths care about following rules, while non-psychopaths care most about helping others because, unlike psychopaths, they have compassion for others. I take the non-psychopathic approach to moral truth. I try (within the bounds of selfishness) to prevent suffering by sentient creatures, not to follow abstract rules from on high. The philosopher's conception of "morality" needn't even enter the picture, except insofar as such language helps us better structure our thoughts about altruism and communicate with one another.

If moral truth exists, what does it say?

I've never read a plausible account of what moral truth is supposed to be, but let's assume arguendo that it exists. What might the moral truth exhort us to do?

Plausibly it would say something completely arbitrary, since it would be quite a coincidence if the moral truth dictated anything relevant (or even comprehensible) to us. Moral realists might reply that we could know moral truth in a similar way as we know mathematical truth, but I also don't think mathematical truth exists out there for us to grasp. Indeed, if it did, how would it get from "out there" into our minds? Perhaps mathematical truth could be part of the physics of our world, leading evolved creatures to discover it as a useful tool for predicting physical phenomena. But in that case, mathematical truth is just part of physics, not something extra. Likewise, the forces that influence our evolved moral views are physical, which is precisely what the moral antirealist alleges. Nothing is gained by positing that these moral views are somehow "objective", whatever that would mean.

If the alleged moral truth isn't completely arbitrary, perhaps it conforms to Occam's razor and thus has a simple description. But in that case, moral truth seems unlikely to refer to high-level features of human life, like justice, happiness, beauty, etc. Those are massively complicated concepts built on top of layers of physical abstraction. Rather, the moral truth would probably prescribe something about the simplest levels of reality. For example, "Thou shalt not combine matter with antimatter." Or, as Tim Tyler notes, God's utility function may be to maximize entropy.

Atheists laugh at the idea that the god of the universe would care whether people who have the same kind of genitals get married. Likewise, we should probably laugh at the idea that the universe's moral truth says anything meaningful about our human concerns (other than, e.g., that they should be destroyed to create a higher-entropy configuration of matter and energy).

Postscript: Political correctness

Political correctness isn't necessarily postmodern, but it often comes along with the general liberal intellectual tradition in which postmodern ideas are embedded. I'm torn on the issue, and in the end I tend to think the best policy is to take a reasonable middle path among extreme alternatives.

When I was in high school, I assumed that progressives were generally right about all policy stances, so I took it for granted that political correctness was good. When in 9th grade I read in Fahrenheit 451 that Ray Bradbury opposed political correctness, I thought he was being overly dramatic. Even today, I think progressives almost always get social (if not necessarily economic or political) policies correct, so it is at least surprising if political correctness is an exception.

Political correctness is a no-brainer in basic cases. If "tribes" is more demeaning than "ethnic groups", then sure, let's go for "ethnic groups". If "Common Era" is less Christian-biased than "Anno Domini", then let's use CE. Insofar as certain words may have negative connotations, it's fine to stop using them -- though I don't think we should go overboard in castigating someone who accidentally insults groups of people by poor word choice. The impulse to react angrily against insults is a natural human tendency, but decorating that reaction in the holy-seeming veil of political correctness doesn't make it less aggressive.

Also, we have to keep in mind why certain words are offensive to begin with. There seems to be what Steven Pinker calls a "euphemism treadmill" in which the euphemisms of previous decades later become slurs. In analogy with Gresham's law in economics, it seems that "Bad connotations drive out good ones." The problem lies not with a word itself but with its associations; not with the letter of the name but with the spirit of the name.

I have less tolerance for factual whitewashing: instances where liberals try to hypercorrect cultural biases by actively painting a more favorable account of an oppressed group in an effort to offset existing prejudices. I've seen this throughout my school career: Native Americans, African Americans, non-Christians, women, poor people, etc. are always the "good guys" in history, and rich white European males are always the "bad guys". Educators don't say so explicitly, but this isn't too much of an exaggeration of the undercurrent behind what's taught. As one recent example, in "Islam, the Quran, and the Five Pillars All Without a Flamewar", John Green condescends to his audience by assuming they don't know about Islam and then focuses on the positive aspects of the religion. He tries to counter the idea that Muslims believe in 72 virgins after death by explaining that this number only appears in one hadith that is "terribly sourced", not in the Quran. But this is disingenuous. The Quran itself makes many references to houri (attractive virgins) in heaven. One translation of Surah 78 includes this passage: "Verily, for the Muttaqun [righteous], there will be a success (paradise); gardens and grapeyards; and young full-breasted (mature) maidens of equal age; and a full cup (of wine)". The number 72 is unimportant compared with the basic idea, which is clear in the Quran. If most Muslims don't take these accounts literally, in a similar way as most Christians don't take the Book of Revelation literally, then that's great and we should emphasize it, but let's not whitewash the original text.

Whitewashing generally comes from a good place: "Americans are so anti-Islamic that we should emphasize the peace and charity in the Quran." And indeed, most Muslims are decent, peaceful people, just like most Christians are. But the Quran also contains references to hell fires every few pages, as well as many endorsements of violence. Of course, the Old Testament endorses violence as well, but that doesn't make the Quran good. It makes both the Bible and Quran bad. Why do we have to play the "which religion is worse?" game? Let's just admit that both have major problems and both are not entirely "religions of peace".

"But", it's objected, "people jump on any chance they can get to hate the outgroup. So we have to hide all evidence that people would use to justify Islamophobia or xenophobia." I can see the noble intentions behind this thinking, but I just don't believe it's the best policy. If you're talking to an already bigoted audience, then sure, I would not highlight the dark sides of Islam. Islamophobia is a serious problem with real consequences insofar as it contributes to bellicose foreign policy that engenders further violence. But among better educated audiences, let's drop the whitewash.

While it's clear that fundamentalist religion causes net harm to the world, I'm not sure that aggressive atheism is the best response to it, since lambasting believers may just make them more defensive and hostile. Instead, it may be more effective to support education in comparative religion, loving parenting, compassionate moralities, and other factors that will naturally reduce inclinations toward fundamentalism. Factual debunking is important, but I would tend do it more in the style of Wikipedia than in the style of an anti-religion website.

Footnotes

  1. Julia Galef made a similar comment in the context of overcoming possibly biologically innate racism on a Rationally Speaking episode that I can't track down.  (back)