January 3, 2008
I recently had a conversation with a friend where the philosophy of science came up (yes, I can be quite boring at a party). In trying to explain my “antirealism” views, my friend quickly stopped listening: “Oh, you’re own of those guys,” he said. “You don’t believe in objective reality.” I knew what he was thinking of: postmodernism.
As it applies to science, postmodernism claims there is no reality outside of the reality I create in my brain, and therefore no way to judge “truth” – one person’s “truth” is just as good as anyone else’s. Quite frankly, I’m appalled by this way of thinking, and I’m quite sure that virtually all scientists are just as appalled as I am. Antirealism, while suffering from a very awkward name (I didn’t come up with it!), is not at all the same as postmodernism.
Here is what I believe about the nature (and thus the meaning) of science:
People who believe in 7.1 are called realists by the philosophers of science, while people who hold 7.2 true are called antirealists. I’m a 7.2 (antirealist) kind of guy, but I get along with realists just fine. It doesn’t make a whole lot of difference as to how scientists spend their day, but it makes for lively arguments among philosophers. The confusion comes from the name: antirealists believe there is an objective reality, they just don’t claim that scientific theories are that objective reality.
Postmodernists, on the other had, disagree with point 1 in the above list – they deny the very existence of an objective reality. It’s hard to imagine that science could even exist if there was no reality underlying the observations that our theories are designed to match. How can accuracy, the measure of scientific “goodness”, even be defined absent a reality independent of our interpretations? I can’t see how science can work in a postmodernist world. But science does work, as judged, if by no other means, by the unprecedented control humans can exert over their environment. In my view, postmodernism is just egoism run amok.
I’m just not important enough to be a postmodernist.
Chris Mack is a writer and Gentleman Scientist in Austin, Texas.