How to Get Real

Is Postmodernism finally on its deathbed? Roger Caldwell examines the evidence and takes a look at its would-be successor: Critical Realism.

For the last two decades of the twentieth century the dominant cultural paradigm was that of postmodernism. But at the beginning of the new millennium a new paradigm is on offer. Postmodernism is dead. It is to be succeeded by the age of critical realism. That at least is the promise that José López and Garry Potter hold out as propagandists of the new movement (they edited a collection of essays called After Postmodernism - An Introduction to Critical Realism, published by Continuum in 2001). True, the two movements have much in common in their sheer scope — offering an overall view of science, social science and the arts, and all in the interests of an emancipatory politics. However, although postmodernism made an easy transition from academia to the media, critical realism has shown to date no signs of doing so. From this, however, no adverse inference should be drawn as to the quality of its thought.

The talk of paradigms recalls the term used by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: for him long periods of ‘normal science’ were punctuated by crises leading to ‘paradigm shifts’. For Kuhn competing paradigms were incommensurable: they involved looking at the world in radically different ways. Certainly, the world looked at through the eyes of critical realism is vastly different from that seen through the eyes of postmodernism — for a start, there is a single world again — but there is more to the matter than an irrational leap from one view to the other. For critical realism begins with the awareness that the postmodernist project is fatally flawed.

There is the danger of anachronism here. Roy Bhaskar may be regarded as the founding father of critical realism, yet his first book, A Realist Thought of Science appeared in 1975 when postmodernism was still in its infancy. Nevertheless, the central targets of the book, Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, were undoubtedly (and perhaps unwittingly) forerunners of postmodernism in their questioning of scientific rationality. Of the two it was Kuhn who was the closest to realism — he held that even after a revolution at least part of the previously ‘normal’ science proves to be permanent, and that science offers us our surest example of sound knowledge. Indeed, it is hard to see in what way there could be a growth of scientific knowledge except from a realist stance, however finely nuanced that claim to realism may be.

Feyerabend, acting as a gadfly to all scientific pretensions, held that there was no such thing as the scientific method and saw science as an essentially anarchic enterprise in which ‘anything goes’. The one scarcely follows from the other, however. It is true that there is no single method that marks out science from any other form of rational enquiry but nonetheless there are a range of criteria — such as explanatory scope, predictive power, experimental repeatability, consistency with other well-established theory — that make it a different sort of enterprise to, say, astrology or alchemy. Feyerabend could scarcely have expected that his remark that “science is the myth of today”, intended no doubt as a provocation, would so soon become orthodoxy, at least in the Humanities.

If philosophers outside science were led in an anti-realist direction there were also developments within science itself — notably the enigmas of quantum physics — that seemed to go against the normal assumption that there is a single observer-independent reality. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics remains the most popular one but it doesn’t take us very far; it confirms that the equations work but doesn’t provide a physical model to account for their success. Attempts to relate the collapse of the wave function in terms of the ‘real’ world — such as Hugh Everett’s many-worlds model — seem unconvincingly extravagant. Much of science is counterintuitive, but the notion that whole new universes are continually splitting off, for all that it has eloquent defenders, would seem in need of firmer foundations to be persuasive.

Here Christopher Norris (once a prolific writer on postmodernism and now an avowed critical realist), rather than accepting the notion of a universe which is dependent on human observers to exist, attempts to bring quantum physics within the embrace of realism. There are several points to be made here. If no realist model of quantum physics has yet been agreed on, this may be because the science itself is incomplete, or because no one has yet devised a suitable model, or because we have yet to decide between competing models. (I understand that in the last decade realistic models have been devised that don’t demand the extravagance of a ‘many-worlds’ interpretation). Also, even if no agreement has been reached on an interpretation of quantum physics, its capacity for precise physical prediction and the fact that it has given rise to sophisticated technology potently suggest that it has latched on to certain objective underlying features of physical reality. It is further worth pointing out that the particular problems of quantum physics don’t carry over into the rest of physics or into chemistry or biology, much less constitute any kind of general scientific crisis. The existence of stars and planets, of DNA, of human bodies and animal bodies is not thereby put into doubt, nor is the validity of the considerable body of scientific knowledge we have developed about these entities. Whatever problems there may be at the subatomic level do not affect our ability to devise realistic theories of the macroworld.

This excursion into quantum physics is necessary because postmodernists have drawn unwarranted conclusions about a general epistemological crisis from, for example, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. In fact, as Sokal and Bricmont have shown in Intellectual Impostures (1997) these conclusions are invariably based on a lack of understanding of the relevant science. If postmodernism is indeed dead — the announcement may yet prove premature — then Sokal and Bricmont have surely been instrumental in hastening the death-throes. They show that, scientifically speaking, the postmodernist gurus have feet of clay.

Indeed, it is hard to give an overview of the major postmodernist tenets without seeming to fall into parody. All knowledge, scientific knowledge included, is held to be socially constructed through and through. Science is therefore merely one story among others. The world we know is one that is constructed by human discourses, giving us not so much truths as ‘truth-effects’ which may or may not be pragmatically useful. From this point of view, epistemologically speaking, a scientific text is understood as being on a par with a literary text. Further, given that for Derrida language is a self-referential system, all communication is reduced to the model of an avant-garde poem in which all meaning is indefinitely deferred.

So put this seems scarcely persuasive. (Indeed, as Garry Potter points out, this is not even a plausible account of an avant-garde poem: if there are no inherent meanings in the text it is not properly a text at all but indistinguishable from an arbitrary jumble of words.) More basically, a denial of realism can take two forms: the first is to accept the possibility of there being an objective reality but to deny that we are in a position to have knowledge of it; the second — more typically postmodern — is to see reality as entirely composed of our discourses about it. The effect of either form is that we no longer are in a position to talk of reality or truth as such: rather, both words are, as it were, to be put in inverted commas. Clearly, if we adopt the latter form of anti-realism, we should have a magical solution to all our problems. For example, as Ted Benton points out, if nature were merely a cultural construct, all we would need to solve our ecological problems would be to change the terms of our discourse. That these theorists do not in fact take this step suggests that they (for good reasons) fall shy of the consequences of their own theories.

One may question whether it is even possible to state theories of this kind without self-contradiction. If objective truth about reality is impossible, then what is the logical status of the statement that objective truth about reality is impossible, since it itself aspires to objective truth? A similar problem arises, as Bricmont points out, with regard to Richard Rorty’s neopragmatism. If, as Rorty proposes, we replace the notion of truth with that of usefulness, so that we accept only those propositions which we find in general to be ‘useful’, then the question arises as to whether they are really useful or not. That is, the very criteria by which we judge a proposition to be useful involve the same recourse to a correspondence with reality which the theory denies us in advance. We are left, inescapably, with the conclusion that the theory is incoherent.

Critical realism, then, rescues us from the postmodernist nightmare and restores us to reality. We cannot manage without a concept of truth. There is (as most of us thought all along) a pre-existing external reality about which it is the job of science to tell us. True, we must be cautious about claims to objective reality, alert to ideological distortions, and aware that the world is a messier, more complicated place than the accounts of physicists would suggest. This does not mean that such claims cannot plausibly be made. A central plank of critical realism is that science can no longer be considered as just another myth or story.

Ted Benton is concerned to restore the centrality of the concept of nature to the social sciences. He notes that, among sociologists, there is an ambiguous attitude to the natural sciences, debunking on the one hand but envious of their success on the other. The notion of nature, and for that matter human nature, tends to be seen as essentially a social construct, which means that we can never speak of nature as such but only of discourses about nature. The result of this, combined with a suspicion of scientific thought as indissolubly linked with political and social domination, is that sociologists are powerless to contribute to debates about such important contemporary issues as loss of biodiversity or ecological degradation, assessment of which is crucially dependent on scientific analysis. If sociologists deny the validity of a scientific account of nature to begin with, dissolving ‘nature’ into so many discourses, they are left with a hapless relativism, inadequate to deal with the ‘real’ problems that clearly exist. This is not to deny that science may be put in the service of political or social oppression, or indeed that scientifically-based remedies may be inappropriately applied. The answer to this is better political systems and more finely tuned application of science. It does not constitute an argument against scientific truth as a whole.

Bhaskar himself tends to argue on an ontological level (he asks what kinds of entities — natural and social — exist) rather than on an epistemological one (that is, asking what different ways there are of arriving at knowledge). There are good reasons for this. If scientific method does not differ essentially from other ways of determining the probable truth of a state of affairs, then it is hard to see how there can be competing epistemologies. Think, for example, of a murder enquiry: X has been shot, and the evidence available suggests that it was Y who did it. He was known to have a grudge against X, he had previously threatened to shoot him, there is good DNA evidence, and he was seen standing over the body with a smoking gun. Then, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, it would surely be rational of anybody to conclude that X was murdered by Y.

Now, this judgement may be wrong: later there may come conclusive evidence that it was Z who did it, having cleverly incriminated Y. In which case our conclusion will be revised accordingly. But any investigator considering the available evidence should reach the same conclusion regardless of their age, gender, race or sexual persuasion. That is what we mean by objective truth. If this is true of a murder enquiry it is surely true of how progress is made in the physical sciences: just as X was murdered either by Y or Z or somebody else, so the speed of light is either one value or another. It cannot be the case that the speed of light has one value for one theorist and another for another: either one or the other (or both) are mistaken. It is considerations of this sort that make nonsense of Luce Irigaray’s notorious question; “Is E = Mc2 a sexed equation?” Equations cannot be sexed like humans or chickens: the equation in question is true or false, regardless of who discovered it. It just happens that it was Einstein: it could easily have been someone else.

Clearly, critical realism is by now a diffuse and interdisciplinary movement, covering a wide spectrum of opinions. The question is: how broad a church can critical realism be if it is to remain both critical and realist? Most of the contributors to López and Potter’s anthology clearly accept scientific objectivity: it is far from clear that the contributors to the section entitled ‘Ways of Knowing’ are similarly committed. Jenneth Parker, invoking Lyotard, Feyerabend and feminist epistemology, explicitly argues that the ‘reductionism’ of Western science derives from the economic and political organisation in which it is embedded. This reductionism has allegedly led to the loss or marginalization of less privileged knowledge-systems. This may be so, but the term ‘knowledge-systems’ rather rigs the question in advance. If instead we talk of belief-systems — which say cover, for example, witchcraft, Christianity, astrology, not to say science itself — we can then ask the crucial question: are they true? For only then can they become knowledge-systems proper. And I’m not clear on what basis Parker could decide this.

She argues that Western science should not be privileged over, say, acupuncture; that to include both is likely to lead to a better understanding of the human body. Again this may be so: acupuncture is clearly widely-practiced and may have beneficial effects on health. But how many ways of understanding how a human body works can there be? If behind acupuncture there lies genuine knowledge about the human body so far unrecognized by science then the only rational procedure for scientists is to modify their theories so as to take this new knowledge into account. If this is thought to privilege the hegemony of science then I make the alternative proposal: that if there is genuine knowledge in Western science about the human body not previously taken account of by acupuncture (and,of course, relevant to healing) then it is only rational of acupuncturists to incorporate that knowledge into their practice, if it is possible to do so. The result is, in the first case, that science remains science, but better science. The result is, in the second case, that acupuncture becomes more scientific.

Parker is arguing for pluralism. However, whilst there can be, and obviously is, pluralism in regard to the values which particular societies endorse, it is unclear in what way there can be a pluralism in regard to truth. Obviously, there is a pluralism of ways of looking at the human body — an artist, a sexual partner, a surgeon will all look at it from very different perspectives. But it seems to me that only the biologist is in the business of explaining how the human body functions. It is theoretically possible that at any one time there may a number of competing biological theories, but only one (or none) of them is likely to be correct. A plurality of ways of looking does not translate into a plurality of ways of knowing.

Alison Assiter, writing on Descartes, adopts similarly dubious tactics. She argues that Descartes’ philosophical project foundered on its failure to take other people and their beliefs into account, and on Descartes’ own assumption that he could isolate himself from his particular values and beliefs to produce knowledge. She further argues that Descartes’ ultimate reliance on God is a result of his having severed any dependency on anything else, and that, from the standpoint of feminist epistemology, there is no ‘project of pure enquiry’ but that all enquiries are dependent on a social context. One may well agree that Descartes failed in his project, though scarcely for the reasons she gives. Assiter is here falling back into positions that are closer to postmodernism than to that of critical realism.

If the latter involves, as she says, “a socio-historical situating of knowledge”, there is a singular failure in her essay to locate Descartes’ own philosophical project socio-historically. The main purpose of what we now think of as Descartes’ philosophical works was to establish a certain foundation for his physical science which he hoped, nervously aware of the fate of Galileo, would be acceptable to the Catholic Church. In this, as we know, he failed: for all his efforts to placate the Church, his works were placed on the Index of Prohibited Books. In his scientific work, like Galileo, he attempts to provide an account of the natural world in the light of human reason and independent of theology. If this is to be acceptable to the Church then he must find a way of showing that human reason is somehow guaranteed by God, that God is not a malignant trickster.

If we approach Descartes’ project historically in this way it is easy to see that Assiter’s charges are misconceived. Descartes’ dependency on God, in the context of his period, is scarcely a pathological matter, requiring a Freudian reading. The method of hyperbolic doubt is a heuristic device for a particular end, not a universal prescription: it is, I agree with Assiter, not something that school teachers should recommend to their charges, but Descartes would not have recommended it either. She finds it strange that Descartes, as a practising scientist, should not have emulated the procedures of the sciences in seeking help from others. This is anachronistic with a vengeance: there were in Descartes’ time no scientific institutions in our sense. Science was necessarily carried out by individuals in isolation. Indeed, contra Assiter, individualism in this sense has had a rather successful track-record in science. Whether or not there is ‘a project of pure enquiry’ one only has to think of the achievements of Newton, Darwin, Mendel, Einstein to doubt Assiter’s recommendation that truth is best validated in collectives.

What Assiter is mainly concerned to do, however — and here Descartes is only a convenient whipping-boy — is to advocate “the more collective, cooperative, self-reflective” approaches advocated by feminist methodology as exemplifying scienticity. It is hard to see, however, in what this methodology consists, or what defects in non-feminist methodology it seeks to remedy. Assiter invokes the insights of Sandra Harding for whom feminism requires us “to reinvent science and theorizing”. The achievements of ‘feminist science’, however, as Susan Haack reminds us, have been unimpressive. Harding tells us that, thanks to feminist scientists, “we now know that menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause aren’t diseases.” We may wonder what other great discoveries are to follow.

Haack argues in her book Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate (1998) that the profusion of incompatible themes offered as feminist epistemology itself speaks against the idea of a distinctively female cognitive style. Besides, if there are insights available to women that are not available to men, it is hard to see how men could even come to understand what feminist science is saying. The same, of course, applies to women attempting to understand masculinist science. But if we are to posit different epistemologies for men and women, what logical reason have we to stop there? Are there perhaps ‘gay’ ways of knowing as opposed to ‘straight’ ones? Are there perhaps black as opposed to white ones, urban as opposed to rural ones, childrens’ as opposed to adults’? And so on. If so we are each of us a confused site of many ways of knowing. The question is: what difference does it make to our ability to arrive at objective knowledge? I fail to see that it makes any difference at all. Assiter may well argue that it is impossible for us, Descartes-style, to strip ourselves of our social context, of our assumptions and values. In one sense it is. But if your purpose is, say, to discover the structure of DNA, they are not going to be of much use to you. As we know, Watson and Crick made the discovery; it could have been — and, as we know now, nearly was — Rosalind Franklin. This was not a triumph of a male cognitive style over a female one. If Franklin had made the discovery it would not have been the triumph of a female cognitive style over a male one. In either case the structure of DNA is a double helix.

To postulate the existence of competing epistemologies in the way that Parker and Assiter do is surely regressive — it involves a fracturing of knowledge and, by implication, leads to the relativistic impasses that are characteristic of postmodernism. It invites the suspicion that not all of those who now choose to operate under the banner of critical realism have the right to do so — they have changed the label but not the brew. It perhaps illustrates too that to go over from one paradigm to another is a messy business, and takes time. To the degree that critical realism has broken free of its successor it is surely to be welcomed — we have reality once again, and we have the possibility of progress in knowledge. We have (potentially) a social science that operates on the basis of a realistic conception of the natural sciences. There is at last light on the horizon. On the fringes of the movement there may be a few dubious practitioners who wish to return us to the postmodernist night in which all cows are black. But the centre seems firm enough, and we can only hope that it will hold.

© Roger Caldwell 2003

Roger Caldwell is a poet, philosopher and literary critic who lives in Essex. His book of philosophical poetry, This Being Eden, was published recently by Peterloo Press.