Sophisticated Postmodern Theology proves a disappointment

In my latest copy of New Humanist, Jonathan Rée reviews a book by postmodernist Bruno Latour, who has written several books about the lack of objectivity of science. Latour’s new book, On the Modern Cult of the the Factish Gods, actually came out in 2010, and I didn’t know of it. But the sentences below in bold, taken from Rée’s review, piqued my interest, so I got the book from the library:

Readers with a limited appetite for paradox may quickly tire of Latour; but they should not close the book without looking at the final pages. On The Modern Cult of the Factish Gods concludes with a brief and brilliant essay entitled “How Not to Misunderstand the Science and Religion Debate”, featuring a notable act of self-outing. There is, Latour confesses, a simple crass label for the kind of thinker he has always been: “I have been raised a Catholic,” he says, and it seems his faith has never wavered, even though – “in my tradition, in my corner of the world,” as he puts it – he could never mention it without embarrassment. “I cannot even speak to my children,” Latour says, “of what I am doing at church on Sunday.”

How could I resist a demand that I read a brilliant piece on the science and religion debate? Not knowing Latour, I jumped in.  What a mistake!

Here’s Latour’s thesis as described by Rée, which I won’t belabor except to say that Latour rejects attempts to harmonize, or even compare, science and religion because of their different ways of handling “truth”:

Abjuring facetiousness for a while, Latour offers a moving comparison between religious words and words of love: their truth, he says, is a truth of transformation rather than a truth of information. Uncomprehending outsiders will assume that the transformative truths of religion are about getting yourself teleported to some other, better world, but for insiders the opposite will be the case: religious truths serve to remove distractions, enabling us to focus on what is taking place in our space and in our time – to attend to incarnation, to the flesh, to a face, a stone, a child, a fly, a tomato or a piece of wood – and to find them replete with significance, and calling for no response except gratitude, reverence and love.

. . . Religion, it seems, is far more intelligent than most philosophers give it credit for, and there is nothing in it that need offend or alarm the intelligent scientist, the intelligent humanist or the intelligent atheist. Or so Latour would have us believe.

Well, yes, some religious practices encourage introspection, but who can deny that many believers prop their faith upon the factual truth of things like the immortality of Jesus, Mohamed’s status as a prophet of Allah, and the hope of immortality?

Latour’s dissing of science is annoying, and his prose is leaden (this is characteristic of postmodernism—why do they write so dreadfully?). I offer a sample of that vaunted last chapter, which, though mercifully brief, is far from brilliant. Put on your hip boots and wade through this penultimate paragraph of postmodern piffle:

In religious talk, there is indeed a leap of faith, but this is not an acrobatic salto mortale in order to do even better than reference with more daring and risky means, it is a somersault yes, but one which aims at jumping, dancing toward the present and the close, to redirect attention away from indifference and habituation, to prepare oneself to be seized again by this presence that breaks the usual, habituated passage of time. As to knowledge, it is not a direct grasp of the plain and the visible against all beliefs in authority, but an extraordinarily daring, complex, and intricate confidence in chains of nested transformations of documents that, through many different types of proofs, lead toward new types of visions that force us to break away from the intuitions and prejudices of common sense. Belief is simply immaterial for any religious speech-act; knowledge is not an accurate way to characterize scientific activity. We might move forward a bit, if we were calling “faith” the movement that brings us to the close and to the present, and retaining the word “belief ” for this necessary mixture of confidence and diffidence with which we need to assess all the things we cannot see directly. Then the difference between science and religion would not be found in the different mental competencies brought to bear on two different realms—“belief ” applied to vague spiritual matters, “knowledge” to directly observable things—but in the same broad set of competences applied to two chains of mediators going in two different directions. The first chain leads toward what is invisible because it is simply too far and too counterintuitive to be directly grasped—namely, science; the second chain, the religious one, also leads to the invisible but what it reaches is not invisible because it would be hidden, encrypted, and far, but simply because it is difficult to renew.

Kudos to any reader who can tell me what this means. I’ve read a fair amount of postmodern lit-crit and philosophy, but it always boils down to the same conclusion: “lots of fancy words; poorly written; no content.”

All I can say is ZOMG, that I’ve done the hard work for you, and there’s no need at all to read Latour’s “brief and brilliant” last chapter.

92 Comments

  1. bernardhurley
    Posted July 22, 2012 at 5:17 am | Permalink

    Sophisticated Postmodern Theology is not a disappointment at all. It fully lives up to my expectations.

    • lamacher
      Posted July 22, 2012 at 7:43 am | Permalink

      Indeed. SMT is, simply, bullshit.

      • lamacher
        Posted July 22, 2012 at 7:44 am | Permalink

        OOPS! SPT.

  2. Anaxyrus terrestris
    Posted July 22, 2012 at 5:24 am | Permalink

    Latour was one of the postmodernists skewered by Sokal and Bricmont in Fashionable Nonsense.

    • Occam
      Posted July 22, 2012 at 8:12 am | Permalink

      Indeed.
      Jerry, do yourself a favour and read up the short chapter on Bruno Latour in Sokal & Bricmont; it’s a guffaw from A to Z.
      Here’s a foretaste:
      http://www.physics.nyu.edu/sokal/le_monde_english.html

      And I promise you, Latour is a lot worse in the original French.

      He has his uses, though. Whenever I used to attend some “interdisciplinary seminar” on “theory and practice,” and Bruno Latour was on the reading list (or, Ceiling Cat help me, a discussion item), the BS detector lit up. Spot-on, each time.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted July 22, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

        Thanks! I thought I’d seen most of the articles on the Social Text affair, but I hadn’t seen that one. I see Alan Sokal is capable of sarcasm when called for. As, in this case, it manifestly is.

  3. Steve in Oakland
    Posted July 22, 2012 at 5:28 am | Permalink

    Q. “Kudos to any reader who can tell me what this means.”
    A. It don’t mean diddly.

    • bernardhurley
      Posted July 22, 2012 at 5:40 am | Permalink

      Maybe, but my diddly is different to your diddly.

      • Dermot C
        Posted July 22, 2012 at 5:59 am | Permalink

        ‘Habituation’ and ‘habituated’ in the same sentence?

        It means that he doesn’t read through his own prose, and that the editor was asleep on the job.

        It also means that he is not habituated to being contradicted; only a towering arrogance, fed by deference, could feel the right to excrete such tosh.

        As a student, I used to be intimidated by such writing; I thought the problem was me. Good to see a proper academic calling it BS.

        • bernardhurley
          Posted July 22, 2012 at 6:18 am | Permalink

          .. only a towering arrogance, fed by deference, could feel the right to excrete such tosh.

          Oh, I don’t know… He might just be a complete idiot.

          • Ivo
            Posted July 22, 2012 at 6:44 am | Permalink

            Probably not, since he’s sufficiently clever to have risen to the top in his profession. He’s more like a successful fraud: clever and dishonest.

            • Occam
              Posted July 22, 2012 at 10:44 am | Permalink

              Worse comes to worst.
              He’s risen in the world since I last had the pleasure of not meeting him.
              Now (since 2007) he’s got a top job where he can really wreak a good deal of havoc: Vice President and Vice President for Research at Sciences Po, the once renowned Paris Institute of Political Studies.

              Money, leverage, and another generation of verbose brain-damaged students.

              Oh, and now he’s discovered Peter Sloterdijk, another (ex-)fashionable pontificator from Germany. He’s been rehashing him recently in French, and marketing English versions full blast.

              • Al West
                Posted July 23, 2012 at 5:17 am | Permalink

                Latour is an idiot, and a charlatan – but he’s also quite crafty, and he has a rather unique persona. Writing mystifying nonsense is not a bar to progress within the French academy. Quite the inverse.

                And he’s quite used to being contradicted. I think Alan Sokal and others have held events – “debates”, they call them, but that’s not so much what they were – wherein fashionable-nonsense-spouters were invited to defend their writings. Latour took several severe hits in Sokal’s and Bricmont’s books, and I seem to remember an event in London in which Sokal and Bricmont blasted Latour with questions that he was unable to answer. Latour is used to his ideas being contradicted, but his studied apathy and amiably eccentric facade allow him to brush debate away without destroying his career.

                Sadly, he will never get his comeuppance. He will likely rise and rise until retirement and death, when he will join the pantheon of pomo greats quoted and revered by leagues of philosophically unsophisticated arts students.

    • harrync
      Posted July 22, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

      I think I now understand why post-modernists think there is no objective truth: having a truth requires that you write coherently; if you can’t write coherently, of course there is no objective truth.

  4. Rimmer
    Posted July 22, 2012 at 5:29 am | Permalink

    “The professor must be an obscurantist or he is nothing”
    H.L. Mencken

  5. Veroxitatis
    Posted July 22, 2012 at 5:29 am | Permalink

    Who are we to say what sophisticated Humpty Dumptyisms mean. “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less”. Through the Looking Glass.

    • Occam
      Posted July 22, 2012 at 8:18 am | Permalink

      If you look closely at the practice (or, as they would put it, praxis) of types like Latour, you realise why the complete exchange between Humpty-Dumpty and Alice matters:

      “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

      “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

      “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master that’s all.”

      (my emphasis)

  6. newenglandbob
    Posted July 22, 2012 at 5:31 am | Permalink

    Layout appears to be a master of word salad construction. Note his use of varied vegetables verbs seasoned with spicy adverbs.

    • newenglandbob
      Posted July 22, 2012 at 5:40 am | Permalink

      Damn spell correction: Latour.

  7. Posted July 22, 2012 at 6:05 am | Permalink

    The reification of praxis gestures toward the historicization of linguistic transparency.

    • BillyJoe
      Posted July 22, 2012 at 7:37 am | Permalink

      historicisation

      • Posted July 22, 2012 at 10:39 am | Permalink

        Mr. Latour will be the arbiter of this matter.

  8. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted July 22, 2012 at 6:47 am | Permalink

    Sophisticated postmodern is a contradiction in terms.

    He who knows he is deep strives for clarity. He who pretends he is deep strives for obscurity.
    — Friedrich Nietzsche (paraphrased slightly from memory)

    As a poster above noted, it meets expectations. One expects it to be crap, and it is!!!

  9. gbjames
    Posted July 22, 2012 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    “his prose is leaden (this is characteristic of postmodernism—why do they write so dreadfully?)”

    Because they think that way.

    The question I have is why do institutions of higher education produce (and hire) people who can’t think clearly?

  10. ReasJack
    Posted July 22, 2012 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    You keep “taking it for the team” Jerry. We really don’t deserve you.

    P.S. How’s the Bible read progressing? (or would this be a B.S. instead of a P.S. in that context?)

  11. DrDroid
    Posted July 22, 2012 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    “Suppose you are an intellectual impostor with nothing to say, but with strong ambitions to succeed in academic life, collect a coterie of reverent disciples and have students around the world anoint your pages with respectful yellow highlighter. What kind of literary style would you cultivate? Not a lucid one, surely, for clarity would expose your lack of content.”

    Richard Dawkins in Postmodernism Disrobed
    http://www.physics.nyu.edu/sokal/dawkins.html

    Whenever I have been tricked into reading some postmodern crap (thanks, Jerry!) I end up wondering how it can be taken seriously. Obviously there are college students who have swallowed the whole thing; the degree of mind rot that results must be stupendous.

    • Posted July 22, 2012 at 10:28 am | Permalink

      That was an interesting piece by Dawkins. I did not know he had written a review of Intellectual Impostures.

      There was a bit in there that particularly caught my attention. He mentions the feminist critique of physics that equated solid mechanics to the rigid nature of male sex organs and equated fluid mechanics to the lubricated nature of female sex organs.

      Dawkins rightly scoffs at this critique’s conclusion that privilege is to blame for fluid mechanics and turbulence remaining unsolved.

      I wonder, though, how common was this brand of feminist critiques of science during the 80s and 90s. I further wonder if having to fend off those critiques in past might partially explain the resistance of some scientists to the present, more grounded feminist critiques of the atheist community.

      I certainly would grow weary and callous from having to wade through so much post-modern nonsense.

      — TP

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted July 22, 2012 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

      Beat me to it! 🙂

      • Steve in Oakland
        Posted July 23, 2012 at 1:18 am | Permalink

        Sounds like a cunning linguist to me.

    • Al West
      Posted July 23, 2012 at 4:55 am | Permalink

      Add a social science blog to your blog feed. An anthropology blog would be a good one. Then you’ll see who takes this mindrotting claptrap seriously.

      There’s a blog called Savage Minds that I read and comment on that is often full of rubbish. Not just “postmodernism”, but any kind of relativism or “other ways of knowing” stuff.

      • DrDroid
        Posted July 23, 2012 at 6:48 am | Permalink

        I wonder if there is some kind of “science envy” going on? Academics who chafe at the tough standards of proof in the sciences and have set up a private tennis court where they can play with the net down?

        • Al West
          Posted July 23, 2012 at 6:49 am | Permalink

          I believe that to be a reasonable supposition.

  12. Stephen P
    Posted July 22, 2012 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    Kudos to any reader who can tell me what this means.

    I think I can manage to translate the second sentence: “Knowledge is not a direct grasp of the plainly visible, but relies on intricate chains of evidence that force us to break away from the intuitions and prejudices of common sense.”

    And that is indeed often true (consider our knowledge of atoms and genes).

    The other sentences have defeated me though. Maybe he puts one semi-meaningful sentence in per paragraph to trick people into thinking that the others must mean something as well.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted July 22, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

      not a direct grasp of the plainly visible, but relies on intricate chains of evidence

      There may be intricacies at times, but a process is no more inherently intricate than that winning in chess means the players are making a chain of moves. If an observation is collected by an experiment (including by eye), it means it has to be constrained in some way in order to be meaningful (testable for uncertainty).

      You can do that constraining all in one step or several. The more practical problem is to learn how to do it, then figure out what the uncertainties are.

      That observation won’t move a Sophisticated Theologian™ of course, I assume the philosopher conjures the woo of “reductionism” on anything process/science.

  13. Posted July 22, 2012 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    “and intricate confidence in chains of nested transformations of documents that, …….. force us to break away from the intuitions and prejudices of common sense”
    That says it all, really.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted July 23, 2012 at 10:08 am | Permalink

      I think I can feel the blood coming out my ears. Or is it fried haggis – OMG!

      • lisa
        Posted July 23, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

        Do they fry haggis? I thought it was boiled.

  14. Grania Spingies
    Posted July 22, 2012 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    “the second chain, the religious one, also leads to the invisible but what it reaches is not invisible because it would be hidden, encrypted, and far, but simply because it is difficult to renew”

    I think translates as ‘religious inquiry seeks religious truth that is unattainable because it is hard to reproduce’.

    Even that though, is gibberish and manifestly not true when seen against the background of what other religious people claim about religious truth.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted July 22, 2012 at 10:44 am | Permalink

      It does correlate with the religious ideas that god can’t be tempted (can’t produce miracles on demand), and that of dispensationalism (we don’t see miracles because we no longer live in the special age of miracles). These are the refuge where the religious hide because their claims about reality can’t meet the standards of objective scientific truth: that it is To be testable and reproducible.

      I think this reflects the frustration the religious must feel when they sense some invisible presence, when they feel there is some deep truth just outside their grasp that they can’t quite put into words. But they can’t bridge that gap between imagination and concrete reality, with good reason: it is just an experience of the imagination, one not uncommon under the influence of psychedelics.

      I suspect that most if not all religious states of mind, the sensing but not grasping of a closeness, a presence, a deeper truth, is all merely a by product of the mind’s linguistic conceptual work of trying to understand what it can’t know, what is beyond the reach of our brain’s ability to map and model the concrete reality of our surroundings. The mind, like nature, abhors a vacuum and rushes obsessively to dispel mystery by inventing narratives. This seems to me a likely root of religious thought in the primitive human mind. It’s no more real than fantasy role playing games or literary fiction, both of which attempt to simulate reality while remaining conscious that they are inventions of the human imagination. In the system of religious thought they make the pathetic attempt to project these subjective mind games onto objective reality. They preserve the most annoying habit of suspending disbelief so completely that they can no longer distinguish between what is human imagination and what is external concrete reality.

      • Sastra
        Posted July 22, 2012 at 10:58 am | Permalink

        I suspect you’re right.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted July 22, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

        Religion as a brain fart of some kind, or several kinds, seems to have a venerable tradition.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted July 22, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

          I suppose Sophisticated Flatologists can disagree about what kind of fart a particular fart is, thereby clearing a site where mystery and uncertainty can invent a new connoisseurly appreciation and pleasure, simultaneously digestive and indigestive, approaching endlessly yet never reaching authentic defecative performance while truly expressing the full expansionary potential of metabolistic possibilities.

          Excuse me, I’ve gotta take a dump.

          • HaggisForBrains
            Posted July 23, 2012 at 10:11 am | Permalink

            That’s another keyboard gone to the Great Coffee Machine In The Sky, damn you.

      • eric
        Posted July 23, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

        AIUI, the bit of your brain that decides the importance of a feeling/memory is separate from the bit of your brain that actually feels/remembers. The sense of a presence is just the first bit firing really hard at nothing…making you feel as if you’re experiencing a really really IMPORTANT nothing.

        Another example would be getting drunk or high and thinking you’ve discovered the solution to world peace. The bit of your brain that says “this is a really important idea” is firing off madly, even though the idea isn’t all that good.

  15. a different phil
    Posted July 22, 2012 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    “The essay you have just seen is completely meaningless and was randomly generated by the Postmodernism Generator. To generate another essay, follow this link: http://www.elsewhere.org/pomo/

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted July 22, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

      The Generator delivered as promised.

      And it includes this delightful footnote:

      ‘More detailed technical information may be found in Monash University Department of Computer Science Technical Report 96/264: “On the Simulation of Postmodernism and Mental Debility Using Recursive Transition Networks”.’

      Yes, that’s a real paper. 🙂

  16. Word Scramble
    Posted July 22, 2012 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Oh fun, it’s like the morning Word Scramble. Well, tossing aside the word pairings that were just lazily tossed out for effect, with no attempt at semantic meaning – this is my stab at an English translation:

    – “Faith” means breaking free from our boring, ho hum mental routines wherein we zoom through the day on autopilot. Religion makes us think about things in new and fresh ways, and to really see and appreciate the world around us, allowing us to experience the subjective presence of the divine. The “leap of faith” needed for religion is the ability to open oneself up to this possibility of this divine experience happening in everyday life.

    – “Knowledge” is really subjective and relative, however concrete it may look. What we call knowledge is really a summary of a long process we’ve gone through to perceive the world in a different way based on experience, and our confidence in that process.

    – People don’t know what “faith” and “knowledge” really mean, that’s the problem. We should assume the definitions I gave above.

    – “Belief is simply immaterial for any religious speech-act; knowledge is not an accurate way to characterize scientific activity.” See, really, belief has nothing to do with religious “speech acts”, i.e., when we talk about religious stuff. We don’t mean any of that stuff in the usual way, it’s all a super-symbolic subjective not-linguistic kind of truth, even when we are in fact talking about it! And knowledge? Well, using the definition I gave above, knowledge isn’t a good way to describe what scientists do.

    – We’d do better if we agreed that “belief” is needed for anything we can’t know with absolute certainty, whether in science or religion. After all, we have only come to “believe” that if we drop a cup it will fall and break due to gravity, we can’t really “know” that until after the fact. So it’s kind of the same.

    – So, based on that line of thinking, it’s not that religion requires “belief” and science gets to claim “knowledge”. You’re really using the same mental facilities for both. They do, however, end up going in different directions – NOT because one requires “faith” and the other “knowledge”, but because science ends up in a place too abstract to be directly grasped through our senses, and religion “simply because it is difficult to renew.” Direct quoting there because I got stuck on that last sentence, I have no idea what he means to convey in “difficult to renew.” I think maybe he means “difficult to find elsewhere in life outside of spiritual life,” but that’s a misuse of the word “renew”, so who knows?

    • Posted July 22, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

      Heh. My translation:

      The leap of faith is not a leap into an abyss, but a leap towards a higher understanding, and away from the mundane.

      Knowledge is not simply about facts, and reductionism, but about a multilayered understanding of the world requiring a combination of all the different aspects of human experience, not just empirical science.

      Belief refers to ideas about things no directly perceived, faith is about more complex conclusions.

      Religion and science are not different in simple distinction between belief and knowledge, but rather in that they use both belief and knowledge for different reasons and to different ends.

      For science, logical inference allows prediction both in time and space. For religion, the distance is not time/space, but a distance defined by comprehending one’s place in the world.

      • Word Scramble
        Posted July 22, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

        Nice thoughts on the topic, Joe. I think perhaps your interpretation is a bit more charitable than mine. I tend to see your more nuanced reading more as a result of you being an astute reader rather than Latour really conveying this message clearly, but what do I know? That was some murky prose. Honestly, if someone said “No no you fool, it was about ducks! Roving gangs of ducks!” I wouldn’t be able to disagree with full confidence…

        • Posted July 22, 2012 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

          I’m familiar with postmodern literary criticism. Like any field it has a style of argumentation, jargon, and a conceptual framework. I would have significantly more trouble understanding a graduate level physics paper… as even Stephen Hawking’s popular books test my limits in that area. An average reader would have trouble with any sufficiently advanced academic paper. Its why people study for years to get degrees and such.

          • Word Scramble
            Posted July 22, 2012 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

            True. That said, I think in every field, from medicine to philosophy, there are those who use the lingo to enhance ideas and those who hide behind it. I get the sense that Latour might belong to the second group, but of course I won’t make that snap judgement based on one paragraph read out of context. I have certainly seen many people, however, attempt to conceal dubious or simply average ideas behind a wall of professional-speak in order to sound impressive. The Emperor’s New Clothes strategy, I guess. This is why, when possible, I think “What exactly does that translate to in English?” is an important smell test.

            Your English translation of Latour, by the way, seems to suggest that he raises some interesting, discussion-provoking (if well-trodden) points. My only opposition to them is that he’s conflating his arguments (Sastra describes it much more eloquently than I could below.)

            • Posted July 22, 2012 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

              Theology at its most basic is an attempt to make rational sense(strict rationalism: ie deductive logic) of scripture and religious tradition.

              It tends to fail right across the board because the origin of scripture is human intuition and emotion, and the politics of the day. So category errors, vague terms, and contradictory premises are unavoidable.

              It’s like trying to turn the works of Shakespeare into one mathematical formula.

              On the other side of things, philosophers have tried to do this sort of thing with science as well, and failed miserably: eg logical positivism.

              • bernardhurley
                Posted July 23, 2012 at 2:09 am | Permalink

                Yes, but the logical positivists took criticism of their position seriously and eventually admitted they were wrong.

              • Posted July 23, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

                That’s because theology privileges scripture and tradition, the way science privileges empirical evidence.

                As with physics, when the observational evidence doesn’t make any logical sense, physicists make up new kinds of logic to describe it. Quantum mechanics is a good example of this. That, in itself, is not a bad thing.

                And that doesn’t mean QM is equal to theology. It just means it uses a similar process. Observation of evidence(empirical or scriptural)in both cases, trumps logic.

            • Al West
              Posted July 23, 2012 at 4:50 am | Permalink

              Latour has published several books and articles that were, surprisingly, very clearly written. He wrote – presumably – precisely what he believed to be the case. And I think those books and articles prove that when he’s not hiding behind words, Bruno Latour is completely full of shit.

    • Modeler
      Posted July 22, 2012 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

      Kudos, Word Scramble, I believe that you have extracted the subjective knowledge after a long process to perceive the passage in a different way from those above based on your experience. I have confidence in your process.

      However I will not suggest that you believe it true, or a different way of knowing.

      I remember being subject to this crap an university.

      Bruno’s earliest work was a lot more accessible and did raise a few interesting points – but this can be seen as a reaction against a 20th century backdrop that started with the pre-quantum science hubris that all the major laws had been discovered, moved on to the Logical Positivists that believed that science could be proved True, and progressed to the rather authoritarian and sterile views of Popper’s falsifiability and scientific method.

      Read in its best light, there was some good in post-modernism. For example, there is some truth in science as a social construct and it is important to study:

      * How scientists work together to do science is done
      * How scientists collaborate to make discoveries, especially cross-disciplinary ones
      * How peer review works to reject broken papers, and
      * How scientists replicate discoveries.

      HOWEVER, (I am not now nor have ever been a post-modernist):

      Scientists do have an objective measure – that of nature – and have observably improved their ability to understand and predict nature to a staggering degree (making transistors out of individual carbon nanotubes, for example).

      WHEREAS

      Religion has not in any way been a way of knowing the world or anything real in it and some now appear to be moving backward. There is little poetry or beauty in the bibble.

      This difference in outcome can only be true if one of those two groups has (socially or otherwise) stumbled onto something real and tangible, something that ‘proves’ (at least in the original sense of ‘test/prove worth’) theories and laws.

      • Word Scramble
        Posted July 23, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

        Wow, thanks for the historical context there – not really my area so I was unfamiliar with this. It is interesting to see how something that seems rather nonsensical taken out of context becomes more logical, in a functional sense, when you look at the big picture. Interesting summary.

  17. Thanny
    Posted July 22, 2012 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    Every time I see postmodern writing, I’m reminded of this latter half of a quote from MacBeth:

    it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

  18. Sastra
    Posted July 22, 2012 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Theology is category error turned into an art form — and Latour is a very vigorous dancer indeed. Watch him twist and pirouette!

    Religious belief seems to be based on and perpetrated by an ability to mix up empirical fact claims about supernatural causes with value commitments, aesthetic experiences, personal choices, guiding principles, emotional expressions, meaningful narratives — and anything and everything that will successfully divert either the believer or the non-believer from asking “but … is it actually true as fact?”

    It’s as if people who believe there is a monster in Loch Ness constantly insist that the monster, the evidence for the monster, and the belief in the monster is for all intents and purposes identical to a choice to care for endangered species. Attempts to clarify the distinction and address issues like the size of the lake and the breeding requirements of a large aquatic species thus end up being interpreted as a foolish desire to “measure” the love of nature. Very annoying.

    • Word Scramble
      Posted July 22, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

      Yes, the interesting thing is that after all of the linguistic gymnastics, his primary move (from my interpretation) was to simply throw out the idea of religion being a literal truth. He then goes on to talk about the uncertain nature of “knowledge” outside of repeatability, and (again, my interpretation,) suggests that this repeatability exists in the subjective outcomes of spiritual experience, putting the two on par. Honestly, once you remove the empirical fact claims of religion, however, no further explanation is needed. It would be like attacking a piece of literature for claiming that, upon reading it, you will probably experience various subjective emotions. No real argument there.

    • Dawn Oz
      Posted July 22, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

      I think that there is a thirst for poetry and it is misconstrued as ‘theology’. Sastras ‘category error turned into an art form’ is brilliant. My observation of my friends is that they yearn for poetry and the arts and somehow can’t let go of their early introduction via their childhood theology. Its the prance of the unicorn instead of the delight of Dobin a the end of the paddock. For we atheists, the contemplation of the stars, insects and ideas brings us our music, however for them, there needs to be concepts which can only be described in words which invite hypnosis. I understand theoretically what is happening, however am baffled by their beliefs.

  19. Ted Lawry
    Posted July 22, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    From Latour’s Wikipedia page:

    Although his studies of scientific practice were at one time associated with social constructionist[5] approaches to the philosophy of science, Latour has diverged significantly from such approaches. Latour is best known for withdrawing from the subjective/objective division and re-developing the approach to work in practice.[6] Along with Michel Callon and John Law, Latour is one of the primary developers of actor-network theory (ANT), a constructionist approach influenced by the ethnomethodology of Harold Garfinkel, the generative semiotics of Greimas, and (more recently) the sociology of Durkheim’s rival Gabriel Tarde.

    His monographs earned him a 10th place among most-cited book authors in the humanities and social sciences for the year 2007[7].

    Incidently, Rabelais, who died in 1553, has a trial in “Gargantua and Pantagruel” in which two contending lawyers spend several days spouting absolute bullshit at each other. Impossible to give a sensible verdict, so the judge just spouted bullshit back at them. The lawyers and everyone in the court were perfectly happy with that verdict. It seems that Rabelais foresaw Post-Modernism 400 years before it happened. Some literature student should do a Ph. D. thesis on it.

    • Steve in Oakland
      Posted July 23, 2012 at 3:46 am | Permalink

      That description of the trial from LaTour’s Wikipedia page is perfect!: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruno_Latour
      “….Rabelais, who died in 1553, has a trial in “Gargantua and Pantagruel” in which two contending lawyers spend several days spouting absolute bullshit at each other. Impossible to give a sensible verdict, so the judge just spouted bullshit back at them. The lawyers and everyone in the court were perfectly happy with that verdict….”
      I worked in the legal field for many many years. I don’t remember any trial that wasn’t like the one described.

  20. Tim
    Posted July 22, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Postmodern Theology. Just the sound of it calls to mind the stench of a dumpster I’m unfortunately subjected to on my evening bike ride home.

  21. MadScientist
    Posted July 22, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    For me “post modern” is a label like “homeopathic” or “astrology” – when I see it I know there’s nothing of value in whatever it’s associated with.

    • Al West
      Posted July 23, 2012 at 4:43 am | Permalink

      That is a reasonable position. I don’t think Bruno Latour accepts the label of “postmodernist”, but it amounts to the same thing, ie, bullshit a la homeopathy, astrology, &c.

  22. Posted July 22, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    Tell that to all those who use religion as a source of information. There is a conflict between science and religion, as religion is not just what one person takes to be what religious language means.

  23. lisa
    Posted July 22, 2012 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

    I must say that Latour’s commentary is probably the worst attempt to make his point I have ever seen, but I THINK I know what he was trying to say (but I make no promises.) As far as religion is concerned, a person must have faith that whichever god(s) the person has chosen does indeed exist. (the so called ‘leap of faith.’) However, since a being supreme enough to earn such faith would be totally beyond humanity’s ability to know, understand or comprehend in any real way. And that because this being, by its very nature cannot be confined to ‘our’ perceivable universe, such a being cannot be studied, measured, defined or proven in any way by our science. In short, a person must have faith in this god, understanding that it must be without any kind of proof. So the belief or lack of it will not affect our environment. This makes the leap into more of a big step, especially because our history, culture and nature have always pushed us in that direction. So, one believes without proof and has faith, or not; there isn’t an in between.
    Science on the other hand is based on what our forefathers have observed, pondered, studied, tested, theorized and asserted and what our contemporaries study, theorize and postulate. We cannot just ‘have faith’ in science. We must test and retest, observe constantly, and offer it to our colleagues and the public and ‘show all our work’ (as numberless teachers have insisted on) until we can offer our findings as fact beyond any shadow of doubt. Which is why so much of scientific information is still considered theory and not fact. As our technology improves, we can look into more and more of our universe in any numbers of ways and find new things to ponder and old things to throw out. This process of methodical observation and testing forces us to have faith in thousands of years of humans observing and pondering, testing and measuring, poking and prodding. We must have faith in the scientist of the past and current times, we must have faith in the care and recording of information handed down; we must have faith in the methods and measurements, and we must have faith in the technology used, and probably more stuff than I can think of at the moment. That’s a lot of faith and a much longer leap.

    • gbjames
      Posted July 23, 2012 at 5:09 am | Permalink

      “…a being supreme enough to earn such faith would be totally beyond humanity’s ability to know, understand or comprehend in any real way.”

      Oh? Why is that?

      And, no, we need no faith at all in scientists of past and present. They earn our trust and are always subject to being exposed as incorrect or, more rarely, fraudulent. It happens. No faith required.

      • lisa
        Posted July 23, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

        You are the argumentative one, aren’t you? But that’s a good thing. (although a little less hostility might be good, also.)
        In rebuttal, I would remind you that I was attempting to unravel a very poorly written assertion. But I must admit that some of it is also my personal opinion. As to why God would be beyond human understanding? Well, it seems fairly obvious to me. Anything capable of creating everything from nothing, that knows everything, but most importantly exists outside and beyond any space/time and thereby seeing everything, past, present and future, as existing all together in one big NOW, is not something the average human can conceive. To speak of God as having done something in the past or doing something in the future is to be unable to separate our reality from God’s. It is a big part of what and why we cannot grasp. And it is absolutely impossible to investigate, measure, observe or test anything beyond our reality, beyond our perception, especially using any kind of scientific methodology. Faith in God is a very personal, individual decision; believe if you want or can, don’t if you cannot accept it. It has nothing whatsoever to do with science. (or religion, for that matter.)
        As for faith in science, I think you misunderstand me. I am not talking about blind acceptance without proof. We build on the foundation of science of the past. It is unnecessary to start the whole inquiry from scratch every time (not never, but not always.) We have faith in science because it is supported by methodical observation and testing and is under constant scrutiny. Occasionally something comes along to upset and overturn what had been accepted for the most part as fact (like nothing can go faster than light.) But at the base of science is faith in the scientific method, in our ability to perceive reality, to have faith in our senses and the technology we use to enhance them,and faith in our ability to understand what we perceive. Not only must scientist have this faith, but the general public must risk having faith in science and in scientists.

        • gbjames
          Posted July 23, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

          You’re just making it up. “God is sooo amazing that I just can’t believe how awesome he is.” Well, sure. In your head. Out here, where I live, the Xtian version of The Deity reads like a rather obnoxious and stupid character from a set of old fairy tales. He looks rather human, except for the absurd “all knowing, all powerful, all loving” foolishness.

          Re: science and faith, what you mean, I think, is that we trust the process. There is good reason for this. We can test it when we are in doubts. We can devise ways to evaluate whether a scientific claim is correct or not. It works. Airplanes stay in the air because of it. Faith is not required.

          This is in complete contrast to religious faith where you just have to believe it because your grandma or the priest said to do so. Or maybe you had a revelation/hallucination and Jesus entered your heart in ways that can’t be demonstrated. Sorry, but I’m not taking your word (or anyone else’s) for that sort of thing.

          • lisa
            Posted July 24, 2012 at 12:46 am | Permalink

            Still hostile I see. Please listen to what I’m saying (virtually.) I trust, have faith in, believe in science. I tried to make that clear. Most people do or they would never get on an airplane. I have faith in science for all the reasons you stated, which were pretty much the same ones I thought I stated. In fact I have faith not only in science, but in scientists (for the most part.) I am grateful that I do not need to study aeronautics, physics or meteorology just to take a trip. But it can hardly be called blind faith; as you say, I won’t take just anyone’s word for it. I have faith in science and scientists because, as you say, they have earned it. I use the word ‘faith’ (which is in this case pretty much the same thing as ‘trust’) because it was the term Latour used.
            As for religious beliefs, I have long said that, in my opinion religion, especially organized religion is by far the most dangerous, insidious, horrifying, really, really bad thing mankind has ever invented, even worse than nuclear WMD’s. Nothing even comes close to the pain and destruction it has and will cause. Throughout history people have handed immeasurable power and wealth to individuals and/or groups no more godlike than you or I. And for millennia they continue to hand these over blindly, and continually commit horrifying acts because they were somehow convinced that these people represented and spoke for some kind of Supreme Being. I am afraid I’ve always wondered why a being that supreme couldn’t just speak for its self. I almost wish I could share in these beliefs. I would love to be the proverbial fly on the wall when these leaders hit Judgment Day and have to defend their actions to those beings they have been impersonating. Ah well, if I cannot believe, I can dream… (sigh) And I did not need to make up any god; millions of them were made up a long time ago. I was trying to apply some sort of logic and reason to some of them. Any being THAT supreme could not exist in our reality, so it must have one of its own. I was trying to unravel the glorious Gordian knot that was Latour’s statement. An individual person’s religious beliefs or lack of it will not change our reality; if he or she believes or not, the world will keep turning. So there is little risk having this faith. No great leap, just a short, safe step. In contrast, science IS our reality. How we interact with science and how it interacts with us can change everything. If we have faith in science, and it proves to be misplaced, it will rock our reality bone deep. So the decision whether to have faith in science is very risky. That is what I believed to be Latour’s point. But he might have meant many different things; it was hard to tell.

            • bernardhurley
              Posted July 24, 2012 at 1:09 am | Permalink

              I will take it that this is your translation of what Latour was saying, but if so it just shows how confused he is. Many things are true and many things are false and no doubt we are frequently mistaken about which is which. However those things that are true are not true because we possess a reality in which tey are true and those that are false are not false because we possess a reality in which they are false. They are true or false simpliciter. There may indeed be things that are beyond our understanding, but this would not be because they inhabit a separate reality.

              One who argues “Any being THAT supreme could not exist in our reality.” is merely arguing, somewhat obtusely, that God does not exist. If he/she goes on tho say “so it must have one of its own.”, he/she is being incoherent.

            • gbjames
              Posted July 24, 2012 at 5:01 am | Permalink

              Well, at this point I’m not sure what you are saying beyond 1) faith and trust are the same, it just matters where you point it, 2) You picked a deity of some sort up somewhere along the line and didn’t need to make one up, 3) He’s a-comming to punish the bad guys, 4) I’m an old meanie.

              So, I’m left with the observation that this all-all-all fellow you speak of is entirely in your head. Distinguishing faith from verifiable trust would be important to recognizing that.

              • lisa
                Posted July 24, 2012 at 10:29 am | Permalink

                1. Faith and trust do not mean exactly the same thing, but they are frequently used interchangeably and in this situation they are close enough. I have faith in science so I trust enough to not feel I must constantly verify every little thing, but I could if I wanted to do so. 2. I was using a conglomeration of various gods as described by several sects that still have living acolytes; I’m just not one of them. 3. The comments about Judgment Day were a stab at humor. I said clearly that I could not believe in it, but if it was true it could be amusing to see how all these charlatans tried to wriggle out of their guilt when faced with what ever deity they had been impersonating. 4. You’re an old meanie. We apparently agree on just about everything under discussion, even what Latour had to say. I don’t know what has made you dislike me, but please don’t distort my words.

              • gbjames
                Posted July 24, 2012 at 11:01 am | Permalink

                I don’t dislike you at all.

                What I dislike is confusing science and religion. And I dislike postmodern confusion masquerading as profundity. OK… I’ll admit it… I dislike religion in general. So when someone goes on about the wonders of their chosen deity I respond with demands for the evidence for the claim. The evidence never seems to come.

                In any case, I don’t think make-believe and reality should be confused, as postmodernism and religion constantly do, in spades.

              • lisa
                Posted July 24, 2012 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

                Well, it seems like we are in accord. But while I find most of the congregations of religion foolish and pathetic and that in mobs they can be very dangerous, I reserve my real wrath for the people who set themselves up as gods and who have caused so much of what is wrong in the world. As much as I despise the religions and their leaders, I don’t think it will change much in my lifetime.

  24. Al West
    Posted July 23, 2012 at 4:38 am | Permalink

    I studied social anthropology for a master of science degree at Oxford. Latour was raised several times in lectures (all lectures are optional, so I decided not to attend that particular series after Latour’s second mention) and also in seminars (not at all optional). I volunteered to read Latour’s book, Reassembling the Social, to give a presentation on it to the class. It was remarkably easy reading for a book by a pomo-ist, and is easily Latour’s best work.

    But that’s like being the best turd in the sewer. Latour is a kook, through and through. His whole schtick is that there is, fundamentally, no such thing as reality. He’s an anti-realist. He claims to be a “super-realist”, but that actually amounts to the same thing (Latour’s just too dumb/philosophically unsophisticated to know this). His so-called “actor-network theory” amounts to the view that whatever anyone believes, is true. He claims that this is “super-realism”; of course, it’s just anti-realism, the view that there is no world outside of human heads.

    He is popular in social science departments, because a lot of social “scientists” are inept. I had always hoped that there would come a day when the human sciences would be placed on a more rational basis and the kooks would be excluded, but I now no longer believe this. Crazy ideas are rampant. Latour is simply a charlatan and an idiot.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted July 23, 2012 at 6:15 am | Permalink

      Presumably this non-realist goes to Western doctors when seriously ill.

      • Al West
        Posted July 23, 2012 at 6:18 am | Permalink

        Presumably. And he seems to have no problem with releasing books and articles, or eating, drinking, arguing, talking, or any other mundane activity that implies acceptance of the existence of the world.

        I wonder if any solipsist has ever taken their position entirely seriously. I wonder what that would look like.

        • gbjames
          Posted July 23, 2012 at 6:34 am | Permalink

          “I wonder what that would look like.”

          Death by starvation?

          • Al West
            Posted July 23, 2012 at 6:40 am | Permalink

            Dehydration would probably get you first.

        • bernardhurley
          Posted July 23, 2012 at 6:38 am | Permalink

          According to Bertrand Russell a woman once wrote to him to say she was a solipsist and couldn’t understand why everybody else wasn’t one too.

          • Al West
            Posted July 23, 2012 at 6:45 am | Permalink

            Ah yes! Russell had some wonderful stories.

            This all raises an interesting philosophical problem – that of how we know how someone believes something or not. Is it possible that the lady who wrote to Russell believed there was no world outside her head, despite clearly having written a letter that presupposed its existence?

            Obviously not. Everyone is a realist, even people who claim otherwise, because in the act of claiming otherwise they are presupposing the existence of listeners and readers. Everyone behaves in a manner that presupposes the existence of a world outside of their heads, unless they’ve gone insane.

            • bernardhurley
              Posted July 23, 2012 at 7:13 am | Permalink

              Yes, this leads to the question of whether it makes sense to say one could know about absolutely nothing except one’s own consciousness. Of course you could be radically mistaken about the world, and any particular thing you think you know could be wrong. But I think that, given the way consciousness and the “external” world appear to be related, the idea that everything you are in a position to know about it could somehow be false is incoherent.

              • Al West
                Posted July 23, 2012 at 7:36 am | Permalink

                Indeed. Searle has a good bit on this in The Construction of Social Reality – how everything we do presupposes the existence of an external reality, and how we can therefore be reasonably justified in asserting truths about the world based on our experience of it.

  25. Faustus
    Posted July 23, 2012 at 6:04 am | Permalink

    I can’t help but remember a quote from George Orwell:

    “In Basic [English], I am told, you cannot make a meaningless statement without its being apparent that it is meaningless – which is quite enough to explain why so many schoolmasters, editors, politicians and literary critics object to it.”
    -George Orwell, tribune, 18th August 1944.

  26. Jason
    Posted July 27, 2012 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    A brief review of this thread makes it obvious how few critics of postmodernism have actually read postmodern writings. It seems they take their cues from critics like Coyne and simply follow suit. The readings are difficult to understand, but nigh impossible if you’ve spent no time examining the conceptual developments of postmodern theory (post-structuralism, deconstruction, hyperrealism, and so on). The complex and messy writing is just a reflection of the complex and messy subject matter. Believe it or not, these people care alot about language.

    On another note, I’m not surprised to see a mention of Sokal. From a postmodern-friendly perspective, he ought to be credited with exposing the limits of that school of inquiry (however obvious they seemed to the rest of us). Frankly, I don’t think it’s useful beyond the subjective social realm; whether water boils at the temperature represented by 100°C is not contingent upon whether it is “true to me.” But it sure would be nice if criticism was based on this rather than Sokal’s easy bait.

    • Jason
      Posted July 27, 2012 at 9:46 am | Permalink

      As an addendum, if the criticism were primarily on postmodern theology, I might find myself in your camp. Why? Because religion makes truth claims about reality external to the subjective social experience, not only within it, where truth is necessarily subjective. But the posts here seem geared toward postmodernism in totality, despite a stunning lack of understanding and experience with such material.

      • Al West
        Posted July 29, 2012 at 3:23 am | Permalink

        I’m very familiar with postmodernism, and it is dreck. I’ve not only read introductions, like Beginning Theory, but also original works, from Donna Haraway to Gilles Deleuze and beyond. I have no idea why I put myself through such torture, but I did try to understand why these people and their inane nonsense are so popular. I’m still mystified by it.

        The entirety of postmodernism – and the rest of continental philosophy, really – is based on an unjustifiable epistemological meta-theory: that you can’t know anything outside of your social background. There’s absolutely nothing to justify that; it is itself based on a mad, equally unjustifiable ontological notion (that society is a thing in itself that precedes the individual); and it is self-evidently incorrect to anybody who doesn’t already have an ideological basis for believing it. Real epistemology has moved on – try Susan Haack’s Evidence and Inquiry, for instance.

        The complex and messy writing is just a reflection of the complex and messy subject matter.

        Nonsense. The issues Dirac was dealing with were an order of magnitude more complex than anything any postmodernist has suggested, and yet Dirac managed to write clear, coherent papers.

  27. CC
    Posted December 27, 2013 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    Latour is also the same brilliant guy who asserted — in all seriousness — that tuberculosis did not exist before Robert Koch discovered it in 1882. Why? Because according to Latour, scientists somehow construct or create reality in the lab.


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