This was the title of the discussion panel, which I had the honor to be a participant in, and which took place as part of this year’s Days of Atheism organized by the Atheistic Foundation of Kazimierz Łyszczyński. The panel was also attended by prof. Ewa Bartnik and Sami Ablullah, and its moderator was prof. Konrad Talmont-Kaminski. Among the many distinguished guests of the Days of Atheism, there was also prof. Richard Dawkins.
My thoughts, which I tried to convey during the panel, have been included below in the form of a short essay written for those who were unable to attend the event. I invite you to read!
Postmodernism: an intellectual hiccup
Postmodernism has brought relief to all those who were lost, and above all to those who are unwilling to burden their minds with the extra effort essential to understand increasingly complicated science.
Today, it is difficult to imagine that half a century ago the author of these words would have been struggling their way to school every day, with a school bag full of books, crayons, and dreams on their back. Teachers eagerly awakened and nurtured these dreams. One of the tasks set by art teachers was “draw the Year 2000” — and children diligently filled hectares of white paper with rockets to carry us on space adventures, orbiting hotels from which it was possible to admire the Milky Way, hovercraft to replace unwieldy cars, supersonic planes, and glass houses. Our imaginations were fuelled even more by visions of “the world a hundred years from now.” It was invariably a thoroughly modern world, filled with widely available inventions and technologies, satisfied, healthy, and clean.
Meanwhile, the years passed…
Half a century later
However, to simplify the whole thing, let’s imagine that someone put these children to sleep for half a century, just like the protagonist in Woody Allen’s film “Sleeper”. What would they see when they opened their eyes? First of all, that they had fallen for the alleged Moon landing they had witnessed as children — which turned out to be a farcical conspiracy — as well as the fact that the Earth is round. They would certainly be surprised to see city dwellers, terrified of the mysterious and dangerous 5G technology, setting fire to and destroying innocent mobile phone masts in God’s name, and blaming planes for spraying chemicals from the air to induce submission and facilitate control over citizens. They would probably also be surprised that vaccination points would be under attack globally from people who fear (among other things) the injection of chips that control their behaviour, and the return of a plague of diseases that were eliminated in their childhood. In the mainstream media, the role of scientific authorities has been taken over by actors, models, and singers. No sign of hovercraft on the streets, and only a few electric vehicles, just slightly more modern than those they knew when they fell asleep. Our city streets are jammed for hours by huge numbers of these vehicles. The supersonic Concorde ceased to fly long ago. Trips into space not only turned out to be a pipe dream, but the world has even been widely accused of its intensive scientific exploration. Irrationalism has flooded across the world unhindered. What went wrong? Why did dreams turn out to be pipe dreams?
One of the answers lies in the increase in knowledge which was calculated by the architect and futurologist Richard Buckminster Fuller in an interesting analysis. He linked his calculations to the period of 200,000 years of evolution of the species Homo sapiens. He assumed that in the first 198,000 years mankind had accumulated a certain amount of knowledge. It only took less than 1500 years to double it. This double amount of knowledge has been doubled again in only 500 years. Between 1900 and 1950 we doubled it again. At some point, the increase in knowledge became exponential. For the next step we needed 20 years, then only 10, then eight, to reach 13 months around 2017. Today, the sum of knowledge is doubled approximately every 12 hours, and the pace is steadily increasing. Perhaps, when these words appear in print, it will double several times a day.
The average boy from half a century ago would be ashamed to admit that he doesn’t know how a Wankel engine or a laser works. If he couldn’t keep up with something, he would run to the newsagents to get the latest issue of his favorite popular science magazine, so as not to be left behind the others. People followed the development of science, discussed inventions and new technologies, and then it seemed to them that they were able to understand the most important changes. But the curve of knowledge growth already crossed the inflection characteristic of exponential growth in order to keep climbing upwards, coming dangerously close to the asymptote. Specialization in science has reached such a level that not only have ordinary science enthusiasts ceased to understand it, but even representatives of the specialization itself. Such an increase in knowledge must have caused a sense of being overwhelmed and lost and created a kind of anomie. But it was not the main cause of the disaster.
The parade of a mutinous crew under the black flag of anarchy
Against the backdrop of this chaos, three horsemen of the Apocalypse appeared. And here I’m not thinking of world-famous atheists going by this name, but of Michael Foucault, Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida — the founding fathers of the philosophical trend called postmodernism. For the first time in history, they undermined on a huge scale the foundations of science, which had been in force for almost two and a half thousand years — Aristotle’s classical concept of truth, based on the belief that reality exists and is knowable, and that the basic laws of logic allow for the creation of an adequate description of it.
It was these three who, by taking advantage of an atmosphere of confusion, anomie, and chaos, convinced many of their contemporaries that reality is fluid, and all ideas are not the result of learning about objective reality but are instead social constructs. This thought brought relief to all those who were lost, and above all to those who could not bring themselves to burden their minds with the extra effort necessary to understand increasingly difficult science.
A procession of this “rebel crew milling beneath the black flag of anarchy” (as described by Edward O. Wilson, one of the most outstanding scientists of the 20th and 21st centuries), has not only led to the rejection and negation of the achievements of science and rational philosophy. At one fell swoop it has also equated all those moral principles and different cultures and ideas which are useful and valuable with those that are devious and obscure. Now there was no need to try to understand a scientific concept — it was sufficient to call it a social construct. and contrast it with any other. Even religion suffered. Back in the good old days representatives of a religious worldview had only one problem — how to convince others that what they were saying was objective reality. Now their belief system has become just one of many equally flimsy social constructs comparable to any other.
Postmodernism created a kind of epistemological confusion, creating conflicts and changing their aspect. It was now no longer necessary to resort to logic and hard arguments to convince an adversary of the legitimacy of one’s views. It was enough to show that their statements are social constructs, and as such, they can be replaced by others. Hard, evidence-based concepts might be compared to any intellectual fantasy. A multitude of conflicting views became the norm and began to require mutual tolerance. It is not surprising, therefore, that postmodernism has also crossed over into education.
The school in the service of post-truth
Schools had to face (and still do face) the challenge of accepting and tolerating the most ridiculous views. Today, a significant part of the time that teachers from half a century ago devoted to awakening our dreams is now spent by schools in training students to have the ability to stop natural opposition caused by lies (actually post-truths) and all kinds of nonsense. Additionally, they increase and strengthen the self-esteem of the people who spout such nonsense. Today, a child who is completely ignorant does not have to run to the newsstand for popular science magazines and educate themselves secretly — it is enough for them to demand respect for their ignorance, and if they do not receive it they will resort to the role of a victim of discrimination. Suddenly, this complicated world of science and technology from half a century ago became much simpler, and political correctness became the criterion for opinions, not inconsistency with reality.
We have also effectively lost respect for authority figures. In times when belief in the existence of objective reality was in force, someone who wrote and published an article, a book, or a dissertation in their field, often gained respect and recognition, because this reality was the test of their mental effort and the theses they put forward. Slowly, over the years, they climbed the academic ladder and gained the respect of others, and their position was so real that it was always, at every moment of their life, determined by objective reality. If they started to talk nonsense, their colleagues, reviewers, and publishers would not allow them to give a voice. Today, any absurdity demands respect and tolerance for itself, and authority is questioned however it is gained because it is only an authority related to the social construct within which it was created. Thus, the authority of a physics professor speaking about a nuclear power plant is worth as much today as that of a Polish studies student and climate activist. The opinion of a doctor or a biologist about biological sex is inappropriate because sex is a social construct, as children in primary schools already know.
Reality is perverse. It is true that there are no regular space shuttles between the Earth and our Moon, as we expected fifty years ago, but each of us has at hand day and night a device with computing powers unimaginably superior to those responsible for the success of the Apollo 11 mission. AGC (the name of the computer created for that expedition) had 74 kB of permanent memory and 4 kB of operational memory. Our average smartphone has at least a thousand times more RAM, from 4 to 6 GB. The remarkable thing is that we use it all the time to ridicule authority figures in social media discussions, pass on recipes for miracle cures, spread anti-vaccine content, or just shoot virtual characters in a virtual world. Is it possible to turn back from this path?
Cooking a frog
Most scientists are positive, but many of them do not notice how celebrities are slowly replacing them as opinion-forming authorities. Students, under the banner of political correctness and tolerance, are increasingly exerting pressure on decisions about what is allowed to be talked about during lectures. Grant committees imperceptibly steer certain lines of research by funding the desired ones and denying funding to research that might uncover uncomfortable truths, and journals reject the results of such research even if it has already been done. This is almost identical to the Chinese recipe for cooking frogs, which says that to cook a frog, do not put it in boiling water because it will immediately jump out. The way to do this is to put the frog in a pot of cold water and slowly heat it up. In this way, the frog does not notice the gradual changes in temperature and therefore does not make any sudden movements until at some point it is too late. The question of whether we have reached the point where we can no longer jump out of boiling water remains open.
Postmodernism is an intellectual hiccup that once conquered the West. The problem is that this is no longer just a Western affliction. Today it convulses the whole world. Will it go away like a hiccup? Or will it rather turn into vomiting?
I’m sorry but this is a rather bad article, filled with misconceptions and devoid of relevant sources. A curious combination for an endorser of critical thinking.
“Michael Foucault, Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida — the founding fathers of the philosophical trend called postmodernism”
No source is provided.
Encyclopedia Britannica doesn’t define Barthes as postmodernist, but as a structuralist (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Roland-Gerard-Barthes). Structuralism provides the cultural background for postmodernism, but they are not the same (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zmYegIGhwtc&t=198): it’s post-structuralism which is related to postmodernism (https://philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/50912/what-are-the-differences-between-postmodernism-post-structuralism-and-deconstru). So I see no reason to define Barthes as a postmodernist, let alone as one of its founders.
Moreover, given the lack of unity of postmodernism, it’s hard to point to someone as its founder in the first place. The introductions I know refer to Lyotard, only because he was the first one to use the term, in 1979 (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/postmodernism/).
“For the first time in history, they undermined […] Aristotle’s classical concept of truth, based on the belief that reality exists and is knowable, and that the basic laws of logic allow for the creation of an adequate description of it.”
No source is provided. It’s also a myth, as far as I know: postmodernists are generally skeptical about Truth with a capital T and try to situate it socially and historically, they don’t deny that reality exist or that logic is useless. I don’t know a single postmodern philosopher who denies the validity of basic logic: it’s an extraordinary claim with no evidence.
Moreover, that external reality exists and is knowable seems a description more fitting to metaphysical and epistemological idealism rather than postmodernism (https://www.britannica.com/topic/idealism, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/idealism/).
“It was these three who […] convinced many of their contemporaries that reality is fluid, and all ideas are not the result of learning about objective reality but are instead social constructs.”
Again, no source is provided. It also misrepresents what social constructs are. To say that something is a social construct is not to deny that it originates from learning about objective reality. This video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=koud7hgGyQ8) does a good job of explaining it.
“A procession of this “rebel crew milling beneath the black flag of anarchy” […] has not only led to the rejection and negation of the achievements of science […].”
No source is provided. In any case, that postmodernism rejects science is another myth (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zmYegIGhwtc&t=917).
Also, about the “rebel crew milling beneath the black flag of anarchy”: I confess I haven’t the slightest idea of what this should mean. Does it mean they were anarchists? Well, not only we are provided zero sources, but I can’t find anything relevant online for Barthes and Derrida. As for Foucault, he notoriously had a philosophical debate with Noam Chomsky, an anarchist (libertarian socialist), in which they definitely disagreed about politics (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wfNl2L0Gf8). Moreover, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry about Foucault’s political views doesn’t mention anarchism (https://iep.utm.edu/fouc-pol/), and says
“The question of Foucault’s overall political stance remains hotly contested. Scholars disagree both on the level of consistency of his position over his career, and the particular position he could be said to have taken at any particular time.”
But maybe the quote just means they were a bunch of nihilists/rebels/contrarians eager to destroy everything. If that’s the case then it mischaracterizes anarchism, as it is «a political theory that aims to create a society which is without political, economic or social hierarchies […] and so work[s] for the maximisation of individual liberty and social equality» (https://anarchistfaq.org/afaq/sectionA.html#seca12). Hardly a nihilist position.
“At one fell swoop it has also equated all those moral principles and different cultures and ideas which are useful and valuable with those that are devious and obscure.”
This sounds a lot like relativism. The conflation of postmodernism and relativism is a common misunderstanding and is easily debunked (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zmYegIGhwtc&t=815, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EHtvTGaPzF4&t=2048). See also here for ethics and morality (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zmYegIGhwtc&t=1072).
Also, no source provided, but it’s no surprise.
“Students, under the banner of political correctness and tolerance, are increasingly exerting pressure on decisions about what is allowed to be talked about during lectures.”
If this is an attempt to link postmodernism and identity politics, then it’s doomed to fail, as the two are at odds with each others (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=26fIBA7O5Ag).
In general, this article seems just another episode of the long saga involving the skeptic movement and their bogeyman version of postmodernism (https://freethoughtblogs.com/atrivialknot/2018/12/13/the-skeptical-mythology-of-postmodernism/).
It’s a hodgepodge of easily disprovable myths citing no relevant sources – which is kind of ironic in itself – written with no knowledge of even the most basic concepts of the subject matter. It doesn’t even take extensive knowledge to respond to it: one needs only a handful of educational videos and encyclopedia entries. From those, one can get a picture of postmodernism which is far different from the caricature depicted in this article.
I don’t even comment on Fuller’s analysis, which can only convince someone who hasn’t a clue about the amazing knowledge people in non-industrial societies actually possess (but I can suggest this book https://press.princeton.edu/books/paperback/9780691178431/the-secret-of-our-success), or the rest of the article, which is just a series of dubious assertions with no substantiation whatsoever.
Keep in mind that I’m no defender of postmodernism. I have no sympathy for it, given my very limited knowledge. Still I don’t think it’s acceptable to spread second-hand misinformation like this.
To conclude I have a few questions. Why do you talk about postmodernism while clearly lacking any relevant background in it? Isn’t it inconsistent to demand high intellectual standards when it comes to science, psychology and psychotherapy, only to ignore such standards when it comes to other fields? And, as a corollary, why should I – or anyone else, for that matter – still trust your judgment about critical thinking?