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Fashionable Nonsense-- a book for Bart

Sep 28, 1998 11:11 AM
by K. Paul Johnson

Months ago, I recall some posts from Bart L. about the
foolishness of postmodernist claims about science, so a current
article in The New Republic struck me as worth posting 
about here.  The article, by Thomas Nagel, is called "The Sleep of
Reason" and describes a new book, *Fashionable Nonsense:
Postmodern Philosophers' Abuse of Science* by Alan Sokal and Jean
Bricmont.  Sokal is the NYU physicist who pulled off a 1996
hoax by submitting, and getting accepted, an article for a
journal called Social Text that was scientifically nonsensical
but fashionably postmodernist.

I'll just quote some central paragraphs about the philosophers of
Science Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend:

Both of them are repeatedly cited in support of the claim that
everything, including the physical world, is a social construct
existing only from the perspective of this or that cognitive
practice, that there is no truth but only conformity or
nonconformity to the discourse of this or that community, and
that the adoption of scientific theories is to be explained
sociologically rather than by the probative weight of reasoning
from the experimental evidence...The radical relativism found in
Kuhn and Feyerabend fell on fertile ground.  The postmodernist
doctrine that there is nothing outside the text, no world to
which it is tied down, seems plausible to consumers of
postmodernist writings, where language is simply allowed to take
off on its own.  Those who have no objective standards themselves
find it easy to deny them to others...the denial of objective
truth on the ground that all systems of belief are determined by
social forces is self-refuting if we take it seriously, since it
appeals to a sociological or historical claim that would not
establish the conclusion unless it were objectively correct.
Moreover, it promotes one discipline, such as sociology or
history, over the others whose objectivity it purports to debunk,
such as physics and mathematics.  Given that many propositions on
the latter fields are much better established than the theories
of social determination by which their objectivity is being
challenged, this is like using a ouija board to decide whether
your car needs new brake linings.(p. 36, TNR 10/12/98)

This debate is relevant to Theosophical issues because among the
fertile grounds for postmodernism has been the defense of
scientifically preposterous claims in Theosophical literature.
If scientists are just a bunch of "discoursers" whose
descriptions of cosmology and geology and biology are purely
subjective, then Theosophists don't have to pay a bit of
attention to the conflicts between their own doctrines and
science.  Or they can condescendingly assert that the
Masters alone have true objective knowledge, and scientists who
dare dispute HPB's pronouncements are wandering in the dark.


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