The Science Wars Redux
Fifteen years after the Sokal Hoax, attacks on “objective knowledge” that were once the province of the left have been taken up by the right.
The passage I’ve italicized makes it look as if Social Text itself, by publishing the essay, is proclaiming its belief in the nonexistence of the external world. That’s basically how most people construed the hoax: as Sokal’s proof that theory-besotted humanists on the academic left deny the existence of the external world. It was Dr. Johnson’s stone all over again, except that this time the stone came flying through the window of a hip academic journal.
But imagine, dear reader, that this essay has been submitted to you, and that you have no reason to think that it is anything but an ordinary journal submission. How would you have read that first paragraph? The first two sentences are unobjectionable; one might even want to call them “true.” The third sentence carries the payload. And yet even that one is trickier than it looks–if you stop and ask yourself what it means that an actual, real-live, university-faculty physicist is saying such things. On one hand, I have to admire Sokal’s powers of mimicry: the fact that he speaks sweepingly and dismissively of “the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook” suggests that he was a quick study of the academic-theory left, and had learned that people who speak of the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook can usually expect to find a sympathetic readership at places like Social Text. On the other hand, why should anyone consider it strange that a physicist would be saying strange things about the physical world? Okay, so some physicist from NYU is challenging the idea that physics offers reliable knowledge of the external world that can be encoded in eternal laws. But don’t physicists say bizarre, counterintuitive things about the external world all the time? Isn’t it part of their job description, like talking about dark matter and dark energy and branes and eleven-dimensional strings and multiple universes and stuff that no reasonable person could possibly imagine on the basis of their daily lives?
As I argued in my 2006 book, Rhetorical Occasions, ever since the days of Bohr and Heisenberg, general readers have come to expect that physicists will not tell them that force equals mass times acceleration and that what goes up must come down; they expect that physicists will tell them that space-time is curved in the shape of a quantum donut whose jelly filling is composed of black holes that bend through Calabi-Yau space to produce “munchkins-branes.” So it’s curious–and telling–that Sokal’s essay goes on to cite Bohr and Heisenberg. But Sokal’s treatment of them is uneasy–and at one point, I think, Sokal gives away more of the game than he realizes. In “Transgressing the Boundaries,” Sokal notes that Bohr himself drew social implications from the principle of complementarity. The principle holds that two mutually exclusive definitions are in fact necessary for an adequate explanation of a phenomenon: light, for instance, is both a particle and a wave. “Bohr’s analysis of the complementarity principle also led him to a social outlook that was, for its time and place, notably progressive,” Sokal writes in an endnote, quoting from a 1938 lecture by Bohr:
I may perhaps here remind you of the extent to which in certain societies the roles of men and women are reversed, not only regarding domestic and social duties but also regarding behavior and mentality. Even if many of us, in such a situation, might perhaps at first shrink from admitting the possibility that it is entirely a caprice of fate that the people concerned here have their specific culture and not ours, and we not theirs instead of our own, it is clear that even the slightest suspicion in this respect implies a betrayal of the national complacency inherent in any human culture resting in itself.
So why does Sokal single out this passage for mockery? Is it as patently ridiculous as the idea that there is no external world? In the follow-up book Fashionable Nonsense, co-written with Jean Bricmont and published in 1998, Sokal argued that his target was humanists’ “fondness for the most subjectivist writings of Heisenberg and Bohr, interpreted in a radical way that goes far beyond their own views (which are in turn vigorously disputed by many physicists and philosophers of science).” Sokal ascribed that fondness to “postmodern philosophy,” which “loves the multiplicity of viewpoints, the importance of the observer, holism, and indeterminism.” Yes, very well. But in dismissing Bohr’s attempt to apply the principle of complementarity to social life, Sokal ducks the question of whether a multiplicity of viewpoints might in fact be more adequate to the phenomenon at hand. What if postmodern philosophy turns out to have good reasons for its love of the multiplicity of viewpoints? Why wouldn’t it be useful to understand cultural conflicts in terms of “complementarity”? What counts as a legitimate inference from the world of the physical sciences, and what is just a sloppy analogy or a metaphor?
The Left and Science
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