Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Revisiting the Science Wars

Toward a Scientific Humanistic Worldview

An interesting debate between modernists and postmodernists emerged in the 1990s called the science wars. The debate highlighted the fact that—as has been popularized at least since C. P. Snow’s famous characterization of the two cultures of the sciences and the humanities in 1959—the academy has failed to produce a consensually agreed-upon vision of the human condition and nature of knowledge. The first clear shot in the science wars came from Paul Gross and Norman Levitt in Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, in which they argued that the postmodern project is muddleheaded and politically dangerous. The debate rose to a fevered pitch in 1996 with the publication of a special issue of the journal Social Text devoted to the science wars and developed largely in response to Gross and Levitt’s critique.

In that special issue there was an article by the mathematical physicist Alan Sokal, who, in his paper, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” offered a postmodern interpretation of some of the fundamental issues in physics, especially concerning the unification of quantum mechanics and general relativity. Although the paper was accepted as presenting a genuine argument, shortly after the article was published Sokal announced it was a parody written to send a shot across the bow of postmodern scholarship. He had written the paper as a “mélange of truths, half-truths, quarter truths, falsehoods, non sequiturs, and syntactically correct sentences that have no meaning whatsoever” (Sokal, 2008, p. 93) to demonstrate that much postmodern scholarship was intellectually vacuous. Sokal articulated his justification for the hoax in a subsequent publication a few weeks later:

"One of my goals is to make a small contribution toward a dialogue on the left between humanists and natural scientists--"two cultures" that contrary to some optimistic pronouncements (mostly by the former group) are probably farther apart in mentality than at any time in the past fifty years…My concern is explicitly political: to combat a currently fashionable postmodernist/poststructuralist/social-constructivist discourse--and more generally a penchant for subjectivism--which is, I believe, inimical to the values and future of the left." (Sokal, 2008, p. 93)

The hoax was covered by The New York Times and became the stuff of legendary academic controversy. On one side were the hardnosed scientists committed to the notion that science in general and physics in particular could reveal or at least approximate timeless objective truths about the universe and our place in it. On the other side was a certain sect of sociologists, historians, philosophers of science, and other postmodern intellectuals who were studying science as a social construction and were arguing or implying that science should not be granted the status of final arbiter of ultimate truth.

So how are we to make sense of the questions posed by the science wars from the vantage point offered by the unified theory? It is clear when reading both sides of the science wars that the term science can mean many different things. It can refer to a collection of empirical facts and findings, a societal institution, a methodology, or a worldview, not to mention the various kinds of scientific disciplines that fall into grey areas (e.g., Is anthropology a science?). Because of its multitude of various meanings, questions about the degree to which ‘science’ is a social construction or is value-laden are confounded.

The unified theory characterizes science as a kind of justification system. As a justification system, it can then be considered as a set of specific facts and claims, a system from which to view the world, an institution, a collection of methods, and various domains on inquiry corresponding to different dimensions of complexity. Much clarity would have been achieved in the debates by understanding science along these lines. For starters, when we think about science as a system of justification, it becomes akin to other systems of human knowledge, like law or religion, in that it is a human construction that emerges in a particular socio-historical time and place. Although those in the science studies typically do not characterize science explicitly as a kind of justification system, they do look at it as a social process similar to other socially constructed systems and consider how the institution of science is ineluctably intertwined with human values, as well as cultural and political forces (i.e., what gets funded, what ideas are attacked or embraced by the culture at large and especially by those in power, what topics are taboo to research, how moral forces shape the kinds of research done, etc.).

But when framed this way there is little to object to from the vantage point of the hardnosed scientist, as even the most ardent defenders of science recognize it as a “human endeavor, and like any other human endeavor it merits being subjected to rigorous social analysis” (Sokal, 2008, p. 117), including analyses of which problems are counted as important, who gets prestige and power, and even what types of theories can be conceived and entertained by the human mind. What the defenders of science object to is the notion that science is just a social justification system, with the implication being that the theories are arbitrary and carry no more truth validity than other human narratives. As Sokal put it, he does not aspire “to be the Emily Post of quantum field theory” (2008, p. 94), meaning that while manners and social conventions are just social constructions, physics produces equations that map onto a reality that exists independently of human desires, politics, or other social pressures. This is, of course, a justifiable argument. Anyone who argues that the mass of an electron was determined in the same way people decided the fork should go on the left side of the plate has not the faintest idea about how justifications in the physical sciences are built.

And yet virtually no one in the science studies or postmodernist camps argues that specific facts discovered by science are arbitrarily constructed. And it is rarely the specific scientific findings such as the mass of an electron that the postmodernists take issue with. Instead it is the institution of science, the nature of scientific debate, and the scientific worldview coupled with its causes and consequences in society that many postmodernists want to emphasize and examine from a more relativistic lens. Understanding science as a justification system allows us to consider it both as collection of specific findings (which can be characterized as descriptive or explanatory statements justified by scientific methodology), and how it becomes a worldview when we consider it a system of interlocking scientific justifications. But when considered as a worldview, science can then be characterized more along the lines of a value-laden normative vision about how people ought to view the world and their place in it. This shifting in meaning creates complications because as soon as we move from the realm of specific empirical facts uncovered by the scientific method to considering science as a worldview, the object under consideration has changed.

From the vantage point offered here, if all the combatants in the science war debate had clear notions of science as a kind of human justification system that comprised of both analytic and normative components, clarity about the precise nature of the disagreements would have been achieved much more quickly. What likely would have emerged is a fundamental disagreement about the value and comprehensiveness of a scientific worldview and its authority in human discourse to justify human action.

Framed this way, the postmodernists question the wisdom to grant authority to any worldview and criticize the scientific worldview as obviously incomplete and wanting in some areas. They also see it as ineluctably enmeshed with Western civilization and values, and are concerned with imposing such culturally relative perspectives on others. In contrast, the scientists see science as revealing universal analytic truths (e.g., the Periodic Table) that must be incorporated into any worldview claiming truth value (which all worldviews worth having do). They also argue that the scientific method and the results it yields should be granted general political authority as they are far more reliable than authority based on social power, revelation, or tradition. Moreover, in response to the multiple, local epistemologies position taken by postmodernists, many scientists raise the criticism that if all knowledge systems are equally valid, how are we to justify the prevention of a Big Brother government like that depicted in George Orwell’s 1984, which could easily be characterized as postmodernism gone mad? Along these lines, Cromer (1997) argued that Hitler used justifications for controlling science that had a “chilling” resemblance to postmodern frames.

Each side of the debate has some merit, although the vision I am offering is ultimately more in line with modernist conceptions than postmodern ones. Nevertheless, the purely natural scientific worldview adopted by many is incomplete because it fails to effectively characterize the problem of values. On the other hand, it seems that much of postmodernism’s fuel, like that of creation science, is found in the criticism of scientific authority. With its anti-foundationalism and periodic implication that all knowledge systems are power-based, local, and equally valid, postmodernism fails to generate cumulative knowledge, carries the seeds of its own implosion, and sets a dangerous stage for intellectual sophistry. What is needed is a new vision of human knowledge that effectively characterizes the relationship between science and humanistic values and points the way toward a higher purpose.

Let us consider how science has impacted human justification systems at large. One of the most significant consequences of the Enlightenment and the modern scientific revolution has been the displacement of pre-modern mythologies. In many regards this displacement can be viewed as positive. Historically, many such mythologies were grounded in intuition, revelation, tradition, and authority, rather than logic and evidence. Consequently, such worldviews can now be seen in light of modern scientific knowledge as naïve, implausible, and in many cases plainly inaccurate. Thus those following science can take solace in its insights and scoff at the immaturity of those ideas of yesteryear.

And yet, while science has undeniably provided us more and more accurate models of the universe, it has also come with a significant price. Barry Schwartz detailed the battle for human nature that took place as the rise of science occurred, and he examined the fallout at the levels of values, meaning, and purpose. He detailed how, just over a century ago, the higher educational system in America taught moral philosophy, and in so doing it attempted to create a community of common values and shared aspirations. Following the growth of science and its (in)famous insistence on the separation of ought from is, higher education became a place where people learned about how the world was but were no longer taught how they ought to be. Schwartz argued that the result has been the loss of moral direction. To see why a scientific worldview might have this effect consider that a recent text called, The Scientists, opened with the line, “The most important thing that science has taught us about our place in the universe is that we are not special”.

Instead of a moral compass, Schwartz argued that people have been given enormous freedom to construct their own lives and make their own decisions. Although this outcome clearly has had many positive elements, it also has resulted in large numbers of people who are fundamentally unsure when it comes to their philosophy of life. “They don’t seem to know where they belong. They don’t seem to know that they are doing the right things with their lives. They don’t seem to know what the right things are” (p. 19). Why is this the case? Because purely scientific justification systems are incomplete. What is needed is a way to blend scientific justifications and their emphasis on semantic precision, logical coherence, and evidence with subjective, social, and moral elements into a comprehensive system of justification that can place both sides of the scientific humanistic dialectic into a coherent whole.