The following is an essay I submitted for my postmodernism independent study at college, would love comments, rebuttals, etc. Hopefully the formatting is ok, it is copied from word.
The primary concern of postmodern philosophy is the centered, totalizing structure present in every facet of human life. This structure is at once both present and absent: present in that it delineates the acceptable, or true, in every instance (whether political, scientific, esthetic, etc.), absent in that it masks itself as the true, the unquestionable, the infallible, thus rendering the structure seemingly invisible or unimportant. However, with the advent of postmodern thought, the unquestionable has begun to be questioned; the mask of the structure begins to rupture, revealing its fallibility and inconsistency. It is only when the structure itself and its center (which, as Derrida points out, throughout history "receives different forms or names" ) are examined that one begins to see the dictatorship under which all human action and thought has been held, a dominance perhaps properly designated as a centered, totalizing metaphysical structure.
Yet this is within the realm of philosophy, a realm in which most care not to dwell, and which is often quickly dismissed as theoretical, impractical games of semantics. For this reason, it is important to show the practical implications of a structure such as the one denounced by postmodern thought. And as one begins to move into the realm of everyday institutions and practices, it becomes evident that this greater metaphysical structure is both dependent upon and the cause of a number of smaller, field-specific totalizing structures. Education, politics, science; all of these and all others depend upon a unique structure which defines and legitimates a certain content. This structure defines the truth of a content contingent upon its operation within the bounds of the structure itself. In this way it totalizes a content, it at once limits the possibilities within a field of human activity or thought, and ensures the exclusion of anything that may threaten the structure itself. At the same time this limited content enjoys the guise of universal truth itself. Such is the case even in a subject as untouchable as modern science, the subject which this paper will strive to address from a postmodern standpoint, in the hope that the mask of the infallible will begin to fade once presented with a questioning of its operating structure.
Modern science depends upon a governing structure, a methodology, a "collection of rules that a discourse [in this case science] must respect when it sets out to know and object and to make it known." This structure, commonly referred to as the scientific method, is at the base of the failings of modern science. In defining what may be known, i.e. only that which corresponds to its methodology, it actively excludes a number of singular phenomena which are unable to pass its necessary stage of reproduction. Similarly it rejects that which is unobservable, something that will create problems with the advent of quantum theory. If these facts were commonly acknowledged, and science were to release its stranglehold on the realm of the knowable, there would be no problems. Science could merely state that it provides knowledge only of that which meets its presupposing criteria. But as stated above, the goal of a governing structure of any content (in this case the scientific method) is the content's totalization, its domination by a structure which declares itself the sovereign authority, in this case the authority over all knowledge.
Science "is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like" and uses itself as legitimation in denouncing any challengers to its authority: "It does not follow the rules of the scientific method and is therefore incapable of producing truth, as the scientific method is the only means by which truth may be obtained." This hypocritical viewpoint has been used by other institutions throughout history, most notably the Catholic Church. The only difference between the church and modern science (in terms of knowledge) is a difference in "received beliefs," or presupposing criteria. These beliefs could be most clearly explained in terms of the center of a structure as mentioned above; while both supposedly "produce" knowledge, one does so with God/religion as its primary referent, the other with scientific methodology, and something is knowledge only insofar as it conforms to the center. In revealing the shortcomings of the scientific structure, postmodern thought hopes to critique the idea of a centered structure itself, rather than simply create a "new" center such as was the case when science overtook religion as the primary path to knowledge.
An obvious example of science's active repression of other forms of knowledge lies in the controversy surrounding psychotherapy. I do not here want to speak of any specific form of psychotherapy, as many exist; rather I take psychotherapy in its most general sense as "the treatment of mental and emotional disorders through the use of psychological techniques - with the goal being relief of symptoms". It is obvious that this definition presupposes that psychotherapists have some sort of "knowledge" about mental disorders, their causes, and means for their relief. It is this "knowledge" that modern science contests and excludes on the grounds that it was achieved through a method different than that of science. And this is not a passive exclusion, but rather an active one. In the specific case of schizophrenia (which would obviously constitute a mental disorder) a report by the scientific community has, in fact, issued a recommendation that "psychotherapies adhering to a psychodynamic model should not be used in the treatment of persons with schizophrenia. (Italics in original)." This recommendation simply ignores the many reported successes of psychotherapists in treating not only schizophrenia, but a variety of mental disorders.
It is not my goal here to advocate psychotherapy instead of the more common pharmacological treatment. I use the example only to show the dominance that modern science exercises in order to ensure its perpetuation, and its dismissal of anything which does not conform to its methodology. It is obvious that psychotherapy does not adhere to scientific methodology. It instead focuses on the more singular aspects of human experience, aspects which are not reproducible in other subjects or openly available to all (which would be requirements for consideration within the scientific community) and deal with conscious and unconscious conflicts within a patient. No two cases, in psychotherapeutical terms, are identical; this makes the verification requirement of the scientific method impossible. Modern science, using its methodology, instead treats the same schizophrenics in terms of neurotransmitters, elements which are the same in each individual, and thus both reproducible and verifiable.
However their success in such treatments is limited, possibly no more beneficent or less so than psychotherapy. What often results is a condition "ultimately described simply as 'tranquilizing.' Psychotic patients often ingest seven different compounds daily." Whether these patients are "cured" per se is in question. What is apparent is that they are much more manageable and thus less of a concern; science has fixed its problem, it has solved its inability to adequately address a subject by simply pushing it into the background. Why, in such instances, would alternatives with at least some history of success, i.e. psychotherapy, be dismissed or excluded? The answer is simple: the structure of modern science is set up to guarantee its continuous perpetuation and strengthening, thus possibly subversive elements not in accordance with its center (the scientific method) must be suppressed.
Yet the structure of modern science is beginning to rupture; the faults of its structure are being revealed not only in philosophical critiques, but within the field itself. Traditionally able to engulf any discrepancies, extending its totalization to include previously excluded content, the scientific method again seems to have discovered something that is inexplicable via its current structure: quantum mechanics. It is first necessary to understand the discrepancies which have arisen from quantum theory; afterwards it is possible to analyze and critique the role of the methodology of modern science that at once brings these problems to light while simultaneously restricting or possibly denying their further explanation.
Without delving too far into the realm of scientific jargon and theory, I will attempt here to briefly explain quantum mechanics, namely in its relation to the theme of this paper. Quantum mechanics exists in the realm of the physical sciences, a subset of the larger system of modern science. Physical sciences began in an attempt to explain the material world around us, i.e., why does matter of any form act as it does, and can its actions be predicted according to any base principles, or laws. As the field progressed through time its research dealt with matter of increasingly smaller size, attempting to reach some base building block of all matter, and in the process becoming increasingly complex and depending more and more on sophisticated machinery and tools. This leads to the discovery of the atom and subatomic particles such as protons, electrons and quarks. Yet at this subatomic level, the typical system of scientific investigation broke down. Due to the method by which scientists view these particles, electrons, ("you must shine a wavelength of light on it that is smaller than the electron's wavelength") it is impossible to know "both the momentum and position of an electron in an atom." It is altogether possible that this paper (in material form of course) could randomly leave your hand and end up across the room due to a chaotic jump of electrons, something even scientists will admit. The truth is that they fail to know what occurs, and by extension, what will occur. Modern science's only answer to the above problems is probability: the current model of the atom is based on electron probability clouds, areas in which the electron is believed to be likely to go. The idea of an ordered system by which all physical activity may be determined is now in jeopardy, left instead to a system of possibilities.
However the above failings do not, admittedly, necessitate or even call for the complete destruction of modern science or its methodology. Rather they demonstrate a need to examine science from a critical standpoint in an effort to weaken the general perception that science can explain everything, or even a majority of things. Such an examination, in reference to quantum mechanics and in conjunction with Kuhn's thoughts in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, helps to delineate science's boundaries in terms of the knowable and reveal a number of instances in which it is inadequate as a tool for investigation.
As Kuhn points out, science and its research involves "a strenuous and devoted attempt to force nature into the conceptual boxes" which it has created. These "boxes," however, depend upon the presuppositions present in scientific methodology, i.e., that a subject is regular or patterned, reproducible, observable, etc. As seen above, the subjects of quantum mechanics (primarily electrons) do not conform to these presuppositions; therefore it is nearly impossible to force them into such conceptual boxes. Rather, science must sidestep the issue and create something which is conformable, i.e., probability clouds.
The significance of quantum mechanics is not that it has discovered some new phenomena; "new and unsuspected phenomena are repeatedly uncovered by scientific research, and radical new theories have again and again been invented by scientists." Rather the significance lies in the fact that scientific methodology has discovered phenomena which can not be further explained or investigated in its actual state using this methodology. In a sense, science has discovered its own failings without admitting or realizing it. This is not a mere "paradigm war" in the words of Kuhn, it is instead the revealing of the inability of any paradigm to be developed in accordance with the presuppositions of science in order to investigate the subject matter of quantum mechanics.
Unfortunately it is likely that the scientific structure will soon find a way to totalize quantum mechanics using "numerous articulations and ad hoc modifications of their theory," "a sign not of less reason [in this case the reason prescribed by the scientific methodology] but of a greater rigor within reason." Once again, science will sidestep the true problem (the problem of methodology and presupposition) and modify the ideas of quantum mechanics so that they conform to the presuppositions necessary for their placement in "conceptual boxes" i.e., classifying the movements as probabilities. Thus it is likely that it will take something more to reveal the true fallibility of the modern scientific system. And (at the risk of this beginning to sound like the promotion of a modernistic project) there are a number of practical activities implied by postmodern thought that could be used to help raise the consciousness of the impotency of the structure employed by modern science.
Such activity would first deny the dictatorship of modern science, subsequently moving the quest for knowledge or truth outside of what is currently considered the scientific field. Depending on personal or group interests, the realm of knowledge would also move away from the currently defined "objective," (which, as pointed out above is simply not the case) and into the social realm. The implications of such a movement would entail a plurality of competing systems by which truth or knowledge may be reached, recognizing their systems qua systems, rather than hiding behind a guise of "absolute" truth or infallibility such as does the system of modern science. These systems could, by implication, be used for the attainment of any number of ends, whether political, esthetic, environmental, etc. As Lyotard points out, "the reason of reason [i.e. a governing structure] cannot be given without producing the circle, but the capacity to formulate new rules (axiomatics) appears whenever the 'need' is felt." This ability to formulate systems of knowledge according to individual or group desires, or needs, would eliminate the possibility of any one structure gaining a totalizing dictatorship in the realm of knowledge. Admittedly other, greater totalizations (such as that of language) would remain present, but that is a separate examination which may be taken up at a later point.
The above being said, there already seem to be such movements taking place at their earliest stages at this point in time. The use of psychotherapy remains present as noted above, and is a perfect example of a competing system of knowledge arising in response to empirical problems, i.e. mental disorders. Feminism has also increasingly aimed at an overthrow of the totalization of knowledge as defined by modern science, simultaneously using their critique to push political objectives, an example of one of the many aims towards which new systems of knowledge may prove useful. The most important facet of each of these movements is their recognition and rejection of a limiting system in terms of the attainment of knowledge. To reject and act outside of the current totalizing system is at the base of all practical implications (in terms of modern science) which may be garnered from postmodern thought.
There is one more point that may be in need of clarification and/or definition: the non-modern status of postmodern activity, i.e. its non-project nature. It is typical, especially within the field of philosophy, for individuals to become unhappy with the reigning system, whether it be the system of thought, politics, ethics, etc. Their goal, then, in developing their philosophical writings is the overthrow of a current system and its replacement by theirs. It is precisely this which postmodernism strives not to do. They do not desire a new system; rather a critique of systems themselves and the recognition of the detrimental element of any system that attempts to achieve totalization within a given field. Thus, the need for a plurality of systems, none of which should hold a dictatorship similar to that of modern science. Postmodern thought gives no more weight to the feminist system of knowledge than it does the current scientific system. The important point is the recognition of the impossibility of a totalization of knowledge by any system. This fact is of the utmost importance if postmodern thought is to avoid being called hypocritical. Their "project," for lack of a better word, is to open up the field of knowledge (and other systems as well) to an infinite number of possible systems. It would be, as Lyotard says, "empiricocritical or pragmatic," denying a status of totalization to all while likewise accepting any system which may arise as self-legitimating in the face of any number of pragmatic concerns.
It is my hope that this essay will be received, not as an attack, but rather as a constructive critique of the system of modern science. Modern science has, undeniably, produced a number of technologies and advancements that are now indispensable to society as a whole. However these achievements have also led to the ascension of modern science to a pedestal from which it maintains what could be called a position of undeserved dominance. Modern science does not hold all the answers; it, as pointed out earlier, holds the answers only to that which conforms to its presuppositions. And, as is increasingly apparent, there are a number of subjects within the world that simply will not conform. Its active repression of other systems which may better treat of such non-conforming subjects is not only problematic from a postmodern philosophical standpoint, but also acts as a hindrance in the search for what may rightly be called knowledge.